Are population outbreaks in sub-arctic geometrids terminated by larval parasitoids?


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1. Larval parasitoids (i.e. parasitoids attacking host larvae) constitute a major source of mortality in many ecologically and economically important forest insects, but how this mortality affects spatio-temporal population dynamics is often not clear.

2. In sub-arctic Fennoscandian birch forest, the two geometrids Epirrita autumnata and Operophtera brumata exhibit pronounced outbreak cycles with significant ecosystem impacts. As mortality owing to larval parasitoids often is very high, the hypothesis that parasitism terminates outbreaks has been advocated, but without decisive empirical evidence.

3. We analysed the altitude- and species-specific timing of population outbreaks typically seen in the coastal section of the sub-arctic birch forest ecosystem to evaluate the critical premise that parasitoid-inflicted larval mortality ought to predict geometrid population growth.

4. However, despite temporally high rates of parasitism, this did not influence the strongly species- and altitude-patterned geometrid outbreaks. We therefore conclude that termination of cyclic outbreaks in these geometrids is caused by other regulatory mechanisms than larval parasitoids.

5. Regardless of their lack of effect on the altitude-specific outbreak dynamics, larval parasitoids accounted for some of the local spatial variance in the temporal dynamics. This implies that results from spatially localized observations and experiments, which dominate research on parasitoid–host interaction, may be misinterpreted with respect to their relevance for large-scale and long-term population dynamics.