"This is a big step forward in the quest to understand why there is so much biodiversity in the tropics," said Weiblen, principal investigator and senior author for the National Science Foundation-funded research. The study is published in the Aug. 25 issue of the journal Science.
The research showed that insect species in tropical and temperate forests dine on about the same number of tree species, despite the more diverse menu in the tropics.
"The tropical forest cafeteria offers many more options than the temperate forest," Weiblen said. "Our study confirms that the choices tropical insects make are quite similar to those of insects in less diverse forests of places like Minnesota."
The study rejected an alternative theory that tropical insects are actually picky eaters who prefer fewer host plants than their temperate counterparts.
"Theory predicts that similar species coexist by dividing up resources like food and space," Weiblen said. "The unparalleled diversity of plant-eating insects in the tropics could be explained according to this theory if tropical insects were more choosy than those in temperate forests. But it hasn't been possible to compare what's on the menu until now."
Identical experiments on tropical and temperate insects were unknown until Weiblen developed a technique to control for differences in food plant diversity.
"It turns out that insect appetites aren't all that different near the equator but the tropical smorgasbord brings more species to the table," Weiblen says.
Mark Cassutt | EurekAlert!
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