• local adaptation;
  • pathogen variation;
  • restriction fragment length polymorphism;
  • source and sink populations;
  • spatial structure;
  • vertical transmission


The cyclic population dynamics of western tent caterpillars, Malacosoma californicum pluviale, are associated with epizootics of a nucleopolyhedrovirus, McplNPV. Given the dynamic fluctuations in host abundance and levels of viral infection, host resistance and virus virulence might be expected to change during different phases of the cycle. As a first step in determining if McplNPV virulence and population structure change with host density, we used restriction fragment length polymorphism (RFLP) analysis to examine the genetic diversity of McplNPV infecting western tent caterpillar populations at different spatial scales. Thirteen dominant genetic variants were identified in 39 virus isolates (individual larvae) collected from field populations during one year of low host density, and another distinct variant was discovered among nine additional isolates in two subsequent years of declining host density. The distribution of these genetic variants was not random and indicated that the McplNPV population was structured at several spatial levels. A high proportion of the variation could be explained by family grouping, which suggested that isolates collected within a family were more likely to be the same than isolates compared among populations. Additionally, virus variants from within populations (sites) were more likely to be the same than isolates collected from tent caterpillar populations on different islands. This may indicate that there is limited mixing of virus among tent caterpillar families and populations when host population density is low. Thus there is potential for the virus to become locally adapted to western tent caterpillar populations in different sites. However, no dominant genotype was observed at any site. Whether and how selection acts on the genetically diverse nucleopolyhedrovirus populations as host density changes will be investigated over the next cycle of tent caterpillar populations.