Habitat Structure, Resources and Natural Enemies: Their Influence on Population Fluctuations of the Kowhai Moth Uresiphita Polygonalis Maorialis (Felder)
The importance of habitat structure has been historically discussed in terms of its influence on diversity, distribution and abundance of living organisms. In this regard, the population fluctuations of any particular species, particularly outbreaking insect species, can be expected to be profoundly influenced by the structure of the habitat. A set of ecological hypotheses, such as, the associational resistance, plant decoy, habitat heterogeneity and resource concentration have implicitly included the structure of the habitat determined by the structure (size, density, physical location) of the host plant and other surrounding plant species. Moreover, type, quality and availability of resources, in addition to the presence of other interacting organisms, e.g. competitors, predators and parasites, have also been considered determining factors in the population fluctuation of outbreaking species. The aim of this thesis is to contribute to the understanding of how the outbreaks of the kowhai moth, U. polygonalis maorialis, relate to the physical structure of the habitat, the availability of resources, specific host plants and to natural enemies.
In the first experimental chapter of my thesis I studied the fluctuations of the U. polygonalis maorialis larvae and their impacts on the defoliation levels of Sophora spp. plants. I carried out a survey in urban and suburban areas of Wellington city. I examined levels of defoliation of the host plants and population fluctuations in terms of a set of biotic and abiotic variables. These variables were selected in order to cover a range of measures of habitat structure, resource availability and invertebrate community. I modelled such responses to find which variables better explained the observed defoliation and larval population fluctuations. The best fitted model showed that levels of observed defoliation were explained by the structure of the vegetation surrounding the main host plant (vertical and horizontal) and the species of host plant. Population fluctuations of the kowhai moth were explained by the following predicting variables: density of natural enemies, structure of the vegetation surrounding the main host plant (vertical and horizontal), host plant size, level of habitat disturbance, type of habitat (urban/suburban) and the Sophora spp.
In my second experimental chapter, I focused on the importance of availability of resources to explain observed densities of U. polygonalis maorialis and phytophagous insects. In my observational experiment I tested the resource concentration hypothesis and the natural enemies hypothesis, by studying the fluctuations of U. polygonalis maorialis larvae on individuals of Sophora microphylla plants located in gardens across Wellington city. Larval densities were found to be higher on smaller plants than large plants, whereas natural enemies did not show specific responses to plant size. In my manipulative experiment I originally aimed for the establishment of U. polygonalis maorialis in the experimental plots. Unfortunately, these were not colonised by U. polygonalis maorialis, instead I studied phytophagous insects that colonised the plots. I found no differences among the S. microphylla treatments for the levels of establishment of phytophagous invertebrates. On the contrary, the amount of nil records was high and there was an overall high variability among treatments and low rate of establishment throughout the sampling season. Nevertheless, natural enemies were found to occur more often at higher densities in plots with lower plant density in only two specific dates.
Uresiphita polygonalis maorialis is the main defoliator of Sophora spp in New Zealand. In this context I studied the feeding and oviposition preferences of the moth for the three most commonly found species of Sophora plants in Wellington city. Sophora tetraptera was the preferred species chosen by the female moth. The same species was also the most palatable and preferred when confronted to S. microphylla and S. prostrata. These patterns observed in controlled conditions are coincident with observations made in the field throughout the study.
Within the set of variables determined by the invertebrate community, the influence of natural enemies on an herbivorous population is one of the most important in terms of population regulation. In my last experimental chapter I found a positive correlation among the parasitism by M. pulchricornis and U. polygonalis maorialis larval densities, which opens the possibilities for future research to explore the potential existence of population regulation mechanisms between these two taxa.
Overall, the results of my thesis highlight the importance of understanding the influence of the structure of the habitat, types of resources provided by plants and natural enemies in determining the fluctuations of outbreaking insect species.