Plant-eating insects inhabit all forest ecosystems, but sometimes their numbers explode, resulting in massive tree defoliation. In the October issue of the Journal of Tropical Ecology researchers from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) associate a severe moth outbreak with drought conditions following the 1997-1998 El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) event in a dry lowland forest near Panama’s Pacific coast. If ENSO events become more common, repeated herbivore outbreaks might alter forest species composition.
"Although we regularly monitor insect populations from STRI’s Canopy Crane system, we were actually tipped off about the outbreak by the crane operator, who complained that his parked car was covered with insect droppings," explains STRI post-doctoral fellow, Sunshine Van Bael.
Moth larvae devoured 250% more leaf material than usual even as researchers were setting up an experimental protocol to monitor herbivores and leaf damage on twenty tree species reachable from the gondola on the arm of a 42 m tall modified construction crane in Panama City’s Metropolitan Park. The crane, one of two in Panama and nine worldwide, permits scientists to ascend into the treetops to study previously inaccessible aspects of forest dynamics and species diversity.
Beth King | EurekAlert!
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