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Vertical stratification of a temperate forest caterpillar community in eastern North America


Vertical niche partitioning might be one of the main driving forces explaining the high diversity of forest ecosystems. However, the forest’s vertical dimension has received limited investigation, especially in temperate forests. Thus, our knowledge about how communities are vertically structured remains limited for temperate forest ecosystems. In this study, we investigated the vertical structuring of an arboreal caterpillar community in a temperate deciduous forest of eastern North America. Within a 0.2-ha forest stand, all deciduous trees ≥ 5 cm diameter at breast height (DBH) were felled and systematically searched for caterpillars. Sampled caterpillars were assigned to a specific stratum (i.e. understory, midstory, or canopy) depending on their vertical position and classified into feeding guild as either exposed feeders or shelter builders (i.e. leaf rollers, leaf tiers, webbers). In total, 3892 caterpillars representing 215 species of butterflies and moths were collected and identified. While stratum had no effect on caterpillar density, feeding guild composition changed significantly with shelter-building caterpillars becoming the dominant guild in the canopy. Species richness and diversity were found to be highest in the understory and midstory and declined strongly in the canopy. Family and species composition changed significantly among the strata; understory and canopy showed the lowest similarity. Food web analyses further revealed an increasing network specialization towards the canopy, caused by an increase in specialization of the caterpillar community. In summary, our study revealed a pronounced stratification of a temperate forest caterpillar community, unveiling a distinctly different assemblage of caterpillars dwelling in the canopy stratum.

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We sincerely thank E.B. Gonzalez-Akre for field assistance, organizational support and leaf area calculations. We further thank the staff, interns, and volunteers of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (Front Royal, Virginia, USA) and the Biology Centre of the Czech Academy of Sciences (České Budějovice, Czech Republic) who helped us during the field work, especially G. Carscallen, M.E. Losada, and G. Nichols for their additional assistance in processing the caterpillar samples. Many thanks to J. Rhodes for facilitating the field work on his property. The Canadian Center for DNA Barcoding, University of Guelph, carried out the COI sequencing and associated bioinfomatics. J. Brown, D. Davis, R. Robbins, and N. Silverson (Smithsonian), P. Goldstein (US Department of Agriculture), and M. Epstein (California Department of Food and Agriculture) provided assistance in identifications. We also thank the anonymous reviewer and the editors for their valuable comments helping to improve the manuscript. This study was funded by the European Research Council (Project No. 669609 to VN). CLS was supported by grant GAJU 038/2019/P provided by University of South Bohemia. GPAL was supported by the Czech funding agency (GACR 19-15645Y). MV was supported by Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the Federal Ministry for Education and Research (Ref.3.3-CZE-1192673-HFST-P).

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VN, SEM, KJAT, and MV established the project. MV, VN, GPAL, and CLS designed the sampling protocols and the experimental approach. GPAL, CLS, and MV lead the field work. CLS, DLW, SEM, and MV processed the data. CLS and LRJ analysed the data. CLS wrote the first draft of the manuscript; all authors discussed the results and significantly contributed in writing the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Carlo L. Seifert.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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Communicated by George Heimpel.

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Seifert, C.L., Lamarre, G.P.A., Volf, M. et al. Vertical stratification of a temperate forest caterpillar community in eastern North America. Oecologia 192, 501–514 (2020).

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  • Feeding guilds
  • Food web
  • Forest canopy
  • Lepidoptera
  • Specialization