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Canopy insect herbivores in the Azorean Laurisilva forests: key host plant species in a highly generalist insect community


  • Sérvio P. Ribeiro,

  • Paulo A. V. Borges,

  • Clara Gaspar,

  • Catarina Melo,

  • Artur R. M. Serrano,

  • João Amaral,

  • Carlos Aguiar,

  • Genage André,

  • José A. Quartau

S. P. Ribeiro (e-mail:, Lab. Ecologia Evolutiva de Herbívoros de Dossel/DECBI, Inst. de Ciências Exatas e Biológicas, Univ. Federal de Ouro Preto, Campus Morro do Cruzeiro, 35400-000, Ouro Preto, MG, Brasil. – P. A. V. Borges, C. Gaspar, C. Melo and J. Amaral, Dept de Ciências Agrárias, Univ. dos Açores, Terra-Chã, PT-9700-851 Angra do Heroísmo, Terceira, Açores, Portugal. – A. R. M. Serrano, C. Aguiar, G. André and J. A. Quartau, Fac. de Ciências de Lisboa (DBA), Centro de Biologia Ambiental, R. Ernesto de Vasconcelos, Ed. C2, 3° Piso, Campo Grande, PT-1749-016 Lisboa, Portugal.


This article explores patterns of insect herbivore distribution in the canopy of the Laurisilva forests on seven islands in the Azores archipelago. To our knowledge, this is one of the first extensive study of this type in tree or shrub canopies of oceanic island ecosystems. One of the most frequently debated characteristics of such ecosystems is the likely prevalence of vague, ill-defined niches due to taxonomic disharmony, which may have implications for insect-plant interactions. For instance, an increase in ecological opportunities for generalist species is expected due to the lack of predator groups and reduced selection for chemical defence in host plants. The following two questions were addressed: 1) Are specialists species rare, and insect herbivore species randomly distributed among host plant species in the Azores? 2) Are the variances in insect herbivore species composition, frequency and richness explained by host plants or by regional island effects? We expect a proportional distribution of herbivore species between host plants, influenced by host frequency and distinct island effects; otherwise, deviation from expectation might suggest habitat preference for specific host tree crowns. Canopy beating tray samples were performed on seven islands, comprising 50 transects with 1 to 3 plant species each (10 replicates per species), giving 1320 samples from ten host species trees or shrubs in total. From a total of 129 insect herbivore species, a greater number of herbivore species was found on Juniperus brevifolia (s=65) and Erica azorica (s=53). However, the number of herbivore species per individual tree crown was higher for E. azorica than for any other host, on all islands, despite the fact that it was only the fourth more abundant plant. In addition, higher insect species richness and greater insect abundance were found on the trees of Santa Maria Island, the oldest in the archipelago. Insect species composition was strongly influenced by the presence of E. azorica, which was the only host plant with a characteristic fauna across the archipelago, whereas the fauna of other plant crowns was grouped by islands. The great insect occurrence on E. azorica reflects strong habitat fidelity, but only four species were clearly specialists. Our findings indicate a broadly generalist fauna. The simplicity of Azorean Laurisilva contributed to the understanding of insect-plant mechanisms in canopy forest habitats.