Within and between population variation in disease resistance in cyclic populations of western tent caterpillars: a test of the disease defence hypothesis


  • Jenny S. Cory,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Biology, Algoma University, 1520 Queen St E, Sault Ste. Marie, ON, Canada P6A 2G4
    2. Department of Biological Sciences, Simon Fraser University, 8888 University Drive, Burnaby, BC, Canada V5A 1S6
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  • Judith H. Myers

    1. Departments of Zoology and Agroecology, University of British Columbia, 6270 University Blvd., Vancouver, BC, Canada V6T 1Z4
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*Correspondence author. E-mail: jsc21@sfu.ca, myers@zoology.ubc.ca


  • 1Epizootics of nucleopolyhedrovirus (NPV) are an obvious component of the population fluctuations of several species of temperate forest Lepidoptera, including the western tent caterpillar, Malacosoma californicum pluviale (Dyer). An observed relationship between epizootics and the subsequent reduction in fecundity of populations led to the formulation of the disease defence hypothesis. This hypothesis predicts that viral epizootics in peak populations select for more resistant moths and that their reduced fecundity in declining populations reflects a cost of disease resistance.
  • 2To test the disease defence hypothesis, we carried out bioassays to measure the variation in larval resistance to NPV infection for families of western tent caterpillars from four spatially distinct populations over 3 years of peak and declining host densities.
  • 3Each female moth lays a single egg mass and larvae are gregarious and remain together through development. We found that the resistance to disease of larvae within families was not related to the number of eggs in the mass from which they hatched (the fecundity of their mother).
  • 4Disease resistance of larvae varied among populations and over time in a manner consistent with selection for resistance. One population that had not experienced a strong viral epizootic during the last population decline was more susceptible to infection in the first year of the study. Larvae from a second population that experienced an early epizootic became significantly more resistant. The resistance of two other populations increased slightly before the viral epizootic occurred in the field however, and thus could not be explained by selection.
  • 5As population densities declined from peak density, the background mortality of larvae increased and the fecundity of moths decreased. This indicates a general deterioration in the quality of field populations of tent caterpillars associated with the declining populations.
  • 6Although some evidence suggests that viral epizootics can select for increased resistance of field populations of tent caterpillars, the general deterioration in quality, elevated background mortality, and the reduced fecundity after the epizootic are stronger influences on the population decline. These are possibly related to sublethal viral infection.