Evolutionary dynamics of specialisation in herbivorous stick insects

Ecol Lett. 2019 Feb;22(2):354-364. doi: 10.1111/ele.13197. Epub 2018 Dec 19.


Understanding the evolutionary dynamics underlying herbivorous insect mega-diversity requires investigating the ability of insects to shift and adapt to different host plants. Feeding experiments with nine related stick insect species revealed that insects retain the ability to use ancestral host plants after shifting to novel hosts, with host plant shifts generating fundamental feeding niche expansions. These expansions were, however, not accompanied by expansions of the realised feeding niches, as species on novel hosts are generally ecologically specialised. For shifts from angiosperm to chemically challenging conifer hosts, generalist fundamental feeding niches even evolved jointly with strong host plant specialisation, indicating that host plant specialisation is not driven by constraints imposed by plant chemistry. By coupling analyses of plant chemical compounds, fundamental and ecological feeding niches in multiple insect species, we provide novel insights into the evolutionary dynamics of host range expansion and contraction in herbivorous insects.

Keywords: Chaparral biome; Timema stick insect; host shift; plant secondary metabolites; plant-herbivore interaction; realised vs. fundamental niche; redwood.

Publication types

  • Letter

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Ecosystem
  • Herbivory*
  • Insecta*
  • Plants