Stable coexistence of an invasive plant and biocontrol agent: a parameterized coupled plant–herbivore model


†Present address and correspondence: Yvonne Buckley, The Ecology Centre, University of Queensland and CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, School of Integrative Biology, Goddard Building, St Lucia, Brisbane, QLD 4072, Australia; e-mail


  • 1Coupled plant–herbivore models, allowing feedback from plant to herbivore populations and vice versa, enable us to predict the impact of biocontrol agents on their target weed populations; however, they are rarely used in biocontrol studies. We describe the population biology of the invasive plant Echium plantagineum and the weevil Mogulones larvatus, a biocontrol agent, in Australia. In order to understand the dynamics of this plant–herbivore system, a series of coupled models of increasing complexity was developed.
  • 2A simple model was extended to include a seed bank, density-dependent plant fecundity, competition between weevil larvae and plant tolerance of herbivory, where below a threshold plants could compensate for larval feeding. Parameters and functional forms were estimated from experimental and field data.
  • 3The plant model, in the absence of the weevil, exhibited stable dynamics and provided a good quantitative description of field densities before the weevil was introduced.
  • 4In the coupled plant–herbivore model, density dependence in both plant fecundity and weevil larval competition stabilized the dynamics. Without larval competition the model was unstable, and plant tolerance of herbivory exacerbated this instability. This was a result of a time delay in plant response to herbivore densities.
  • 5Synthesis and applications. The coupled plant–herbivore model allowed us to predict whether stable coexistence of target plant and biocontrol agents was achievable at an acceptable level. We found this to be the case for the EchiumMogulones system and believe that similar models would be of use when assessing new agents in this and other invasive plant biocontrol systems. Density dependence in new biocontrol agents should be assessed in order to determine whether it is likely to result in the aims of classical biocontrol: low, stable and sustainable populations of plant and herbivore. Further work should be done to characterize the strength of density dependence according to the niche occupied by the biocontrol agent, for example the strength and functional form of density dependence in stem borers may be quite different to that of defoliators.