1. Data on host plant associations of butterflies (Papilionoidea, excluding Hesperiidae) from two biogeographical regions were used to investigate (1) whether tropical herbivores are more narrowly specialized with regard to host plant choice than those of northern temperate zones, and (2) whether tropical butterflies show a greater diversity of host plant affiliations.
2. There was no evidence for a more restricted diet breadth of tropical butterflies, with diet breadth being measured as number of host plant families used per species. In the families Papilionidae, Pieridae, and Nymphalidae, host plant ranges of West Palaearctic and South-East Asian species are similar, whereas in one speciose group within the Lycaenidae, the Polyommatini, tropical species are significantly more polyphagous.
3. Diet breadth also differs among higher butterfly taxa. While Papilionidae, Pieridae, the nymphalid subfamilies Satyrinae, Morphinae, Libytheinae and Apaturinae, as well as the temperate-zone Polyommatini in the Lycaenidae are composed predominantly of host specialists, the degree of polyphagy is higher among the remaining nymphalid subfamilies and in many lycaenids. These results challenge strongly the view that tropical herbivores are generally more specialized in this regard than herbivores of higher latitudes. Rather, chemical constraints and phylogenetic conservatism shape host plant associations in many taxa in such a way that differences between temperate and tropical representatives are slight.
4. Host plant diversity, measured as the number of plant families used per butterfly family and by application of the log-series model, is much higher in South-East Asian Nymphalidae and Lycaenidae (the two largest families) than in their Western Palaearctic relatives. No such differences are observed in the Papilionidae and Pieridae (the two smaller families). Besides effects of sample size, the strong association of papilionid and pierid butterflies with plants characterized by a small set of classes of secondary plant compounds might generally restrict their capability to utilize a broader taxonomic range of host plants.
5. The results indicate that high floral diversity can be reflected by higher diversity of host plant affiliations of herbivores, but taxonomic idiosyncrasies render it difficult to draw generalized conclusions.