Life history traits predict relative abundance in an assemblage of forest caterpillars

Eric M. Lind, Pedro Barbosa

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Species in a given trophic level occur in vastly unequal abundance, a pattern commonly documented but poorly explained for most taxa. Theoretical predictions of species density such as those arising from the metabolic theory of ecology hold well at large spatial and temporal scales but are not supported in many communities sampled at a relatively small scale. At these scales ecological factors may be more important than the inherent limits to energy use set by allometric scaling of mass. These factors include the amount of resources available, and the ability of individuals to convert these resources successfully into population growth. While previous studies have demonstrated the limits of macroecological theory in explaining local abundance, few studies have tested alternative generalized mechanisms determining abundance at the community scale. Using an assemblage of forest moth species found co-occurring as caterpillars on a single host plant species, we tested whether species abundance on that plant could be explained by mass allometry, intrinsic population growth, diet breadth, or some combination of these traits. We parameterized life history traits of the caterpillars in association with the host plant in both field and laboratory settings, so that the population growth estimate was specific to the plant on which abundance was measured. Using a generalized least-squares regression method incorporating phylogenetic relatedness, we found no relationship between abundance and mass but found that abundance was best explained by both intrinsic population growth rate and diet breadth. Species population growth potential was most affected by survivorship and larval development time on the host plant. Metabolic constraints may determine upper limits to local abundance levels for species, but local community abundance is strongly predicted by the potential for population increase and the resources available to that species in the environment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3274-3283
Number of pages10
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 1 2010


  • Acer negundo
  • Forest caterpillar assemblage
  • Macrolepidoptera
  • Metabolic theory
  • Phylogenetic ecology
  • Population growth rate
  • Relative abundance

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