, Volume 118, Issue 1, pp 29-38

Foraging in a pathogen reservoir can lead to local host population extinction: a case study of a Lepidoptera-virus interaction

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In 1990, natural infestations of the polyphagous vapourer moth, Orgyia antiqua (Lepidoptera: Lymantriidae) in lodgepole pine plantations in northern Scotland, were studied to ascertain the role of host foraging behaviour on the prevalence of nucleopolyhedrovirus (NPV; Baculoviridae) infection in the population. Aerial dispersal of early instar larvae (L1–L3) from the tree canopy onto heather foliage at the forest understorey, with subsequent relocation back onto the tree as late-instar larvae (L4–L6) appeared to play a significant role in the development of a widespread virus epizootic in which approximately 80% of L4–L6 individuals succumbed to disease. Bioassays of foliage 1 year later showed that the distribution of NPV followed a pronounced vertical gradient through the forest canopy culminating in high concentrations of virus in the forest understorey. Experimental systems comprising potted pine trees positioned above heather bases showed that NPV infections could be acquired by early stage larvae following dispersal from the tree and feeding on the undercanopy vegetation, then translocated to the tree component for secondary transmission to susceptible tree-feeding individuals. Behavioural studies indicated that the tendency for first-, second- and third-instar larvae to disperse to the understorey was probably not influenced by larval density on the tree but was strongly dependent on larval instar. In contrast, the tendency for larvae to relocate from the understorey heather to the tree was affected by both larval density and larval instar, suggesting that both these factors may significantly affect virus acquisition, translocation and transmission in the host population. In the present study, the heather understorey appeared to act as a pathogen reservoir in which virus could persist between host generations. Spatial heterogeneity in virus distribution combined with host foraging behaviour (dispersal and feeding) resulted in the pathogen playing a major role in host population dynamics over an extended time period (3 years). The reservoir theory is supported by the observation that similar dynamics were not observed in O. antiqua populations at neighbouring sites which lacked understorey food plants.

Received: 8 June 1998 / Accepted: 5 October 1998