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Keywords:

  • caterpillar;
  • competition;
  • ecosystem engineer;
  • food web;
  • herbivore;
  • interactions;
  • litter

Summary

1. Ecologists have argued about the commonness and strength of interspecific competition between insect herbivores, but facilitation between herbivores has received much less consideration. We previously found that when two species of folivorous caterpillars co-occurred on a shared host plant, feeding by early season tiger moth caterpillars reduced the growth and reproduction of later season tussock caterpillars. However, densities of tussock caterpillars in summer were positively correlated with densities of tiger moth caterpillars the following spring.

2. In this study, we experimentally manipulated numbers of feeding tussock caterpillars and found that they facilitated tiger moth caterpillars.

3. The depth of the litter layer beneath host lupine bushes was positively correlated with the number of tussock caterpillars feeding on each bush. Experimental additions of litter beneath lupine canopies during summer resulted in increased numbers of tiger moth caterpillars in the following spring, indicating a causal role of litter. Litter potentially provides food, habitat and protection from desiccation and predation. We failed to find evidence that tussock caterpillars facilitated tiger moth caterpillars by mechanisms independent of litter.

4. Our study demonstrates that facilitation may operate between insect herbivores, across life-stages through indirect interactions that are non-trophic. Facilitation operated by a novel mechanism, the accumulation of litter which was a by-product of feeding by one species was valuable to a second species. Facilitation persisted in time and space far beyond the creation of litter by tussock caterpillars which should be considered important ecosystem engineers from the point of view of tiger moths. Facilitations that involve habitat modification may generally connect species that do not interact directly or trophically, and have not previously been considered to affect one another.