High mortality, fluctuation in numbers, and heavy subterranean insect herbivory in bush lupine, Lupinus arboreus

D R Strong, J L Maron, P G Connors, A Whipple, S Harrison, R L Jefferies
Oecologia 1995, 104 (1): 85-92
Sporadic patchy die-off of bush lupine, Lupinus arboreus, has long been known. We describe in detail a series of these incidents on the central California coast, based upon observational and comparative evidence. Stands of thousands of plants die, while nearby mature plants live on. In some sites, repeated die-off followed by regeneration from the seed bank has led to the cover and density of this woody, perennial plant fluctuating widely over the 40 year period for which records exist. Root damage by caterpillars of the ghost moth or "swift" Hepialus californicus (Lepidoptera, Hepialidae) is a major cause of individual bush death and a probable cause of die-off of stands of lupine. Hidden from view underground, a few of these insects readily kill a juvenile or young mature plant by girdling and reaming-out roots. The mass mortality of L. arboreus that we observed involved heavy root damage by these caterpillars in evenaged stands of plants in their first (1.5-year-old) or second (2.5-year-old) flowering season. The injured plants set seed before dying. Older, larger bush lupines better withstood root damage. In plants aged 3 or more years, damage and mortality were correlated with the intensity of ghost moth caterpillars in the roots. At the highest intensity (mean = 37.5, maximum = 62 caterpillars/root), a stand of large, old L. arboreus suffered 41% mortality; 45% of root cambium (median value) was destroyed by feeding caterpillars. Mass death of mature L. arboreus was not correlated with folivory, and leaf damage ranged from nil to moderate in instances of die-off. The western tussock moth, Orgyia vetusta, accounted for the highest levels of folivory, but this insect was rare when die-offs occurred. The lowest lupine mortality rates in our study occurred where tussock caterpillar intensities were high and where plants were repeatedly defoliated by this insect. However, experimental defoliation by high, but realistic, intensities of tussock moth caterpillars resulted in some mortality of mature bushes, and the combined effects of leaf and root herbivory have yet to be assessed. In its natural range on the California coast, bush lupine has several additional species of insect herbivores that can be locally abundant and injurious to the plant, although none is associated with die-off. Subterranean natural enemies of ghost moth caterpillars may play a role in the patchy waxing and waning of this shrub. Locally, a new species of entomophagous nematode (Heterorhabditis sp.) cause high mortality in the soil, before ghost moth caterpillars have entered the root. This natural enemy may thus afford lupines protection from heavy underground herbivory.

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