Document Type



Increases in species diversity and density from higher to lower latitudes are well documented. Nevertheless, the consequences of these changes in diversity for structuring ecological communities and influencing biotic evolution are largely unknown. It is widely believed that this increase in species diversity is associated with increased intensity of ecological interactions closer to the equator. For plant–herbivore interactions in particular, the predictions are that, at lower latitudes, plants will be attacked by more individual herbivores, more herbivore species, and more specialized herbivores and, therefore, will suffer greater damage. We used a large-scale latitudinal transect from Mexico to Bolivia to quantify changes in leaf damage, diversity, and abundance of lepidopteran larvae on two widely distributed host species of the genus Piper (Piperaceae). We show that both density and species richness of herbivores were highest at the equator and decreased with increasing latitude, both northward and southward. Contrary to expectation, however, this increase in herbivore diversity was attributable to the addition of generalist not specialist species. Finally, and again contrary to expectation, the increase in herbivore density with decreasing latitude did not produce a corresponding damage gradient. We propose that the lack of a latitudinal concordance between increases in herbivore density and diversity with decreasing latitude, and the resulting herbivore damage, supports the hypothesis of better plant antiherbivore defenses at lower latitudes. Furthermore, the changes in the relative abundance of generalist vs. specialist species suggest that the nature of the selective pressure is intrinsically different between higher and lower latitudes.

Publication Date

July 2012

Publication Title

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America





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