The spatial and temporal distributions of arthropods in forest canopies: uniting disparate patterns with hypotheses for specialisation



Arguably the majority of species on Earth utilise tropical rainforest canopies, and much progress has been made in describing arboreal assemblages, especially for arthropods. The most commonly described patterns for tropical rainforest insect communities are host specificity, spatial specialisation (predominantly vertical stratification), and temporal changes in abundance (seasonality and circadian rhythms). Here I review the recurrent results with respect to each of these patterns and discuss the evolutionary selective forces that have generated them in an attempt to unite these patterns in a holistic evolutionary framework. I propose that species can be quantified along a generalist–specialist scale not only with respect to host specificity, but also other spatial and temporal distribution patterns, where specialisation is a function of the extent of activity across space and time for particular species. When all of these distribution patterns are viewed through the paradigm of specialisation, hypotheses that have been proposed to explain the evolution of host specificity can also be applied to explain the generation and maintenance of other spatial and temporal distribution patterns. The main driver for most spatial and temporal distribution patterns is resource availability. Generally, the distribution of insects follows that of the resources they exploit, which are spatially stratified and vary temporally in availability. Physiological adaptations are primarily important for host specificity, where nutritional and chemical variation among host plants in particular, but also certain prey species and fungi, influence host range. Physiological tolerances of abiotic conditions are also important for explaining the spatial and temporal distributions of some insect species, especially in drier forest environments where desiccation is an ever-present threat. However, it is likely that for most species in moist tropical rainforests, abiotic conditions are valuable indicators of resource availability, rather than physiologically limiting factors. Overall, each distribution pattern is influenced by the same evolutionary forces, but at differing intensities. Consequently, each pattern is linked and not mutually exclusive of the other distribution patterns. Most studies have examined each of these patterns in isolation. Future work should focus on examining the evolutionary drivers of these patterns in concert. Only then can the relative strength of resource availability and distribution, host defensive phenotypes, and biotic and abiotic interactions on insect distribution patterns be determined.