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Apparent competition can compromise the safety of highly specific biocontrol agents




Despite current concern about the safety of biological control of weeds, assessing the indirect impacts of introduced agents is not common practice. Using 17 replicate food webs, we demonstrate that the use of a highly host-plant specific weed biocontrol agent, recently introduced into Australia, is associated with declines of local insect communities. The agent shares natural enemies (predators and parasitoids) with seed herbivore species from native plants, so apparent competition is the most likely cause for these losses. Both species richness and abundance in insect communities (seed herbivores and their parasitoids) were negatively correlated with the abundance of the biocontrol agent. Local losses of up to 11 species (dipteran seed herbivores and parasitoids) took place as the biocontrol agent abundance increased. Ineffective biocontrol agents that remain highly abundant in the community are most likely to have persistent, indirect negative effects. Our findings suggest that more investment is required in pre-release studies on the effectiveness of biocontrol agents, as well as in post-release studies assessing indirect impacts, to avoid or minimize the release of potentially damaging species.