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Plasticity in Forest Tent Caterpillar Collective Foraging Schedules


Emma Despland, 7141 Sherbrooke W, Montreal H4B 1R6, Canada.


Self-organization can generate synchronized group activity without external triggering cues, and schedules of self-organized collective activity can vary with environmental conditions. This plasticity can improve group members’ ability to meet their requirements in different environments. In colonial caterpillars, synchronized colony foraging schedules have been postulated to depend either on avoidance of visual predators or on temperature effects on ectotherm physiology. We examine the foraging schedule of forest tent caterpillars (Malacosoma disstria) under different constant conditions to distinguish between these hypotheses. Plasticity in the foraging schedule was tested by keeping colonies under different constant regimes of light and temperature. Digital video and tracking software were used to record the colony's alternation between quiescent and active bouts. The duration and frequency of bouts was compared between treatments. The schedule of synchronized colony activity was not affected by lighting, but it accelerated at higher temperature, because of a decrease in the duration of both active and quiescent bouts. Forest tent caterpillars’ foraging schedule thus depends on the time required to accomplish the tasks of food finding (active bouts) and food processing (quiescent bouts). As caterpillars are ectotherms, locomotion and digestion rates increase at higher temperature and both tasks are accomplished faster. The forest tent caterpillar and the congeneric eastern tent caterpillar (M. americanum) both exhibit self-organized synchronized collective foraging, but environmental modulation of foraging schedule differs between these species, according to differences in social organization and thermal ecology. Eastern tent caterpillars maintain a fixed foraging schedule under varying temperatures and use the tent to maintain high metabolic rates. In the forest tent caterpillar, flexibility of the foraging schedule in accordance with changes in metabolism lessens the constraints imposed by collective foraging. Synchronous foraging, where entire social groups travel together to and from feeding sites, is thought to have several fitness advantages including improved food finding, recruitment to profitable food sources, anti-predator defense and group thermoregulation between foraging expeditions.