Variably hungry caterpillars: Predictive models and foliar chemistry suggest how to eat a rainforest

Simon T. Segar, Martin Volf, Brus Isua, Mentap Sisol, Conor M. Redmond, Margaret E. Rosati, Bradley Gewa, Kenneth Molem, Chris Dahl, Jeremy D. Holloway, Yves Basset, Scott E. Miller, George D. Weiblen, Juha Pekka Salminen, Vojtech Novotny

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


A long-term goal in evolutionary ecology is to explain the incredible diversity of insect herbivores and patterns of host plant use in speciose groups like tropical Lepidoptera. Here, we used standardized food-web data, multigene phylogenies of both trophic levels and plant chemistry data to model interactions between Lepidoptera larvae (caterpillars) from two lineages (Geometridae and Pyraloidea) and plants in a species-rich lowland rainforest in New Guinea. Model parameters were used to make and test blind predictions for two hectares of an exhaustively sampled forest. For pyraloids, we relied on phylogeny alone and predicted 54% of species-level interactions, translating to 79% of all trophic links for individual insects, by sampling insects from only 15% of local woody plant diversity. The phylogenetic distribution of host-plant associations in polyphagous geometrids was less conserved, reducing accuracy. In a truly quantitative food web, only 40% of pair-wise interactions were described correctly in geometrids. Polyphenol oxidative activity (but not protein precipitation capacity) was important for understanding the occurrence of geometrids (but not pyraloids) across their hosts. When both foliar chemistry and plant phylogeny were included, we predicted geometrid-plant occurrence with 89% concordance. Such models help to test macroevolutionary hypotheses at the community level.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20171803
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1866
StatePublished - Nov 15 2017

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Data accessibility. Sequence data are available from GenBank and EMBL: accession numbers KY370871–KY370926 and LT674168–LT674424. BOLD dataset doi:10.5883/DS-SEGAR16. All other data and code used are available from Dryad: [44]. Authors’ contributions. S.T.S. conceived the study, collected the caterpillar sequence data and leaf tissue, performed the statistical analyses and wrote the first draft of the manuscript. M.V. collected the sequence data and helped write the manuscript. B.I. and M.S. helped identify host species and collect tissue. C.M.R. and B.G. led the morphotyping of the Wanang specimens. M.E.R. managed the specimen collections and barcode database. K.M., C.D. and Y.B. led the collection of caterpillar specimens in the field. J.D.H. identified and clarified the morphological species of geometrid specimens and conducted the literature review. S.E.M. led the barcoding and species delimitation of Lepidoptera. G.W. collected the plant sequence data and contributed to phylogeny estimation. V.N. helped conceive the study and led many aspects of the fieldwork. All the authors commented on a first draft of the manuscript and contributed substantially to the text. Competing interests. We have no competing interests. Funding. S.T.S. and V.N. acknowledge funding from and a University of South Bohemia Postdoc project (reg. no. CZ.1.07/2.3.00/30.0006) and the Grant Agency of the Czech Republic (grant numbers 17-23862S and 15-24571S). V.N. acknowledges support from the ERC grant no. 669609. This material is based upon work supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation under grants DEB 9707928, 0211591 and 0515678, 0816749 and 0841885). Geometrid taxonomy was partially supported by US National Institutes of Health through ICBG 5UO1TW006671. DNA barcoding was provided by the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario, University of Guelph, with funding from Genome Canada and the Ontario Genomics Institute to the International Barcode of Life Project. J.P.S. acknowledges funding from the Academy of Finland (grant no. 258992). Access to

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society.


  • Biodiversity
  • Food webs
  • Geometridae
  • Oxidative activity
  • Papua new guinea
  • Pyraloidea


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