• additive genetic variation;
  • hierarchical structure of traits;
  • life-history and foraging strategies;
  • plant–herbivore interaction;
  • trade-off

Rapid larval growth in insects may be selected for by rapid ephemeral phenological changes in food resources modifying the structure of phenotypic and genetic (co)variation in and among individual traits. We studied the relative effects of three processes which can modify expression of additive genetic and nongenetic variation in traits. First, natural selection tends to erode genetic variation in fitness-related traits. Second, there may be high variance even in traits closely coupled with fitness, if these traits are themselves products of variable lower level traits. Third, traits may be canalized by developmental processes which reduce phenotypic variation. Moreover, we investigated the phenotypic and genetic role played by the underlying traits in attaining simultaneously both large size and short development time.

We measured phenotypic and genetic (co)variation in several pre- and post-ingestive foraging traits, growth, development rate, development time and size, together forming a hierarchical network of traits, in the larvae of a flush feeding geometrid, Epirrita autumnata. Rapid larval growth rate and high pupal mass are closely related to fitness in E. autumnata. Traits closely associated with larval growth displayed low levels of additive genetic variation, indicating that genetic variability may have been exhausted by selection for rapid growth. The body size of E. autumnata, in spite of its close correlation with fitness, exhibited a significant additive genetic variation, possiblye because caterpillar size is the outcome of many underlying heritable traits. The low level traits in the hierarchical net, number (indicating larval movements) and size of feeding bouts in leaves, relative consumption rate and efficiency of conversion of ingested food, displayed high levels of residual variation. High residual variation in consumption and physiological ability to handle leaf material resulted from their flexibility which reduced variation in growth rate, i.e. growth rate was canalized. We did not detect a trade-off between development time and final size. On the contrary, large pupal masses were attained by short larval periods, and this relationship was strongly genetically determined, suggesting that both developmental time and final size are expressions of the same developmental process (vigorous growth) and the same genes (or linkage disequilibrium).