Adaptation to host plants may prevent rapid insect responses to climate change

Shannon L. Pelini, Jessica A. Keppel, Ann E. Kelley, Jessica J. Hellmann

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

42 Scopus citations


We must consider the role of multitrophic interactions when examining species' responses to climate change. Many plant species, particularly trees, are limited in their ability to shift their geographic ranges quickly under climate change. Consequently, for herbivorous insects, geographic mosaics of host plant specialization could prohibit range shifts and adaptation when insects become separated from suitable host plants. In this study, we examined larval growth and survival of an oak specialist butterfly (Erynnis propertius) on different oaks (Quercus spp.) that occur across its range to determine if individuals can switch host plants if they move into new areas under climate change. Individuals from Oregon and northern California, USA that feed on Q. garryana and Q. kelloggii in the field experienced increased mortality on Q. agrifolia, a southern species with low nutrient content. In contrast, populations from southern California that normally feed on Q. agrifolia performed well on Q. agrifolia and Q. garryana and poorly on the northern, high elevation Q. kelloggii. Therefore, colonization of southern E. propertius in higher elevations and some northern locales may be prohibited under climate change but latitudinal shifts to Q. garryana may be possible. Where shifts are precluded due to maladaptation to hosts, populations may not accrue warm-adapted genotypes. Our study suggests that, when interacting species experience asynchronous range shifts, historical local adaptation may preclude populations from colonizing new locales under climate change.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2923-2929
Number of pages7
JournalGlobal change biology
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • Climate change
  • Geographic mosaic
  • Local adaptation
  • Plant-insect interactions
  • Range shifts
  • Resource specialization


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