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Nitrogen enrichment in host plants increases the mortality of common Lepidoptera species


The recent decline of Lepidoptera species strongly correlates with the increasing intensification of agriculture in Western and Central Europe. However, the effects of changed host-plant quality through agricultural fertilization on this insect group remain largely unexplored. For this reason, we tested the response of six common butterfly and moth species to host-plant fertilization using fertilizer quantities usually applied in agriculture. The larvae of the study species Coenonympha pamphilus, Lycaena phlaeas, Lycaena tityrus, Pararge aegeria, Rivula sericealis and Timandra comae were distributed according to a split-brood design to three host-plant treatments comprising one control treatment without fertilization and two fertilization treatments with an input of 150 and 300 kg N ha−1 year−1, respectively. In L. tityrus, we used two additional fertilization treatments with an input of 30 and 90 kg N ha−1 year−1, respectively. Fertilization increased the nitrogen concentration of both host-plant species, Rumex acetosella and Poa pratensis, and decreased the survival of larvae in all six Lepidoptera species by at least one-third, without clear differences between sorrel- and grass-feeding species. The declining survival rate in all species contradicts the well-accepted nitrogen-limitation hypothesis, which predicts a positive response in species performance to dietary nitrogen content. In contrast, this study presents the first evidence that current fertilization quantities in agriculture exceed the physiological tolerance of common Lepidoptera species. Our results suggest that (1) the negative effect of plant fertilization on Lepidoptera has previously been underestimated and (2) that it contributes to the range-wide decline of Lepidoptera.

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We are grateful to the Kurze family (Dresden) and Tommy Kästner (Dresden) for contributing to the capture of females of different species for the experiments. C:N analyses were carried out by Antje Möhlmeyer (Osnabrück). Moreover, we would like to thank two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on an earlier version of the manuscript.

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SK, TF and TH designed the experiments. SK conducted the experiments, analysed the data and wrote the article. TF and TH made substantial contributions to the manuscript, revising and commenting on subsequent drafts.

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Correspondence to Thomas Fartmann.

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Communicated by Klaus Fischer.

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Kurze, S., Heinken, T. & Fartmann, T. Nitrogen enrichment in host plants increases the mortality of common Lepidoptera species. Oecologia 188, 1227–1237 (2018).

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  • Agricultural fertilization
  • Global change
  • Host-plant quality
  • Nitrogen-limitation hypothesis
  • Rearing experiment