, Volume 145, Issue 2, pp 196–203 | Cite as

Variation in plant quality and the population dynamics of herbivores: there is nothing average about aphids

  • Sandra E. Helms
  • Mark D. Hunter
Special topic: Scaling-up in ecology


In the attempt to use results from small-scale studies to make large-scale predictions, it is critical that we take into account the greater spatial heterogeneity encountered at larger spatial scales. An important component of this heterogeneity is variation in plant quality, which can have a profound influence on herbivore population dynamics. This influence is particularly relevant when we consider that the strength of density dependence can vary among host plants and that the strength of density dependence determines the difference between exponential and density- dependent growth. Here, we present some simple models and analyses designed to examine the impact of variable plant quality on the dynamics of insect herbivore populations, and specifically the consequences of variation in the strength of density dependence among host plants. We show that average values of herbivore population growth parameters, calculated from plants that vary in quality, do not predict overall population growth. Furthermore, we illustrate that the quality of a few individual plants within a larger plant population can dominate herbivore population growth. Our results demonstrate that ignoring spatial heterogeneity that exists in herbivore population growth on plants that differ in quality can lead to a misunderstanding of the mechanisms that underlie population dynamics.


Density dependence Plant–insect interactions Plant quality Population dynamics Spatial scale 



We thank Jeff Diez, Ron Pulliam, Pejman Rohani, Caralyn Zehnder, and Chris Frost for discussion and comments on the manuscript. This work was supported by NSF grant DEB-9906366 to MDH. We thank two anonymous reviewers for constructive criticism of an early version of this manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of EcologyUniversity of GeorgiaAthensUSA

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