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Effects of variable phytochemistry and budbreak phenology on defoliation of aspen during a forest tent caterpillar outbreak

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1 The present study assessed the relationship between clonally variable rates of defoliation in trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides Michx.) and two potential resistance traits: defensive chemistry and leaf phenology.

2 In 2001, coincident with a major outbreak of the forest tent caterpillar (Malacosoma disstria Hubner) in the northcentral U.S.A., we monitored defoliation rates, phytochemical composition, and foliar development in 30 clones of trembling aspen. Leaf chemistry was also assessed in re-flushed leaves and 2 years post-outbreak.

3 Early in the season, differences in defoliation among clones were substantial but, by mid-June, all clones were completely defoliated. Leaf nitrogen, condensed tannins, and phenolic glycosides varied among clones but did not relate to defoliation levels. Budbreak phenology differed by 3 weeks among clones and clones that broke bud early or late relative to forest tent caterpillar eclosion experienced reduced rates of defoliation.

4 Defoliation led to increased tannins and slight decreases in phenolic glycoside concentrations in damaged leaf remnants, but to moderately decreased tannins and a six-fold increase in phenolic glycosides in reflushed leaves. This shift in chemical composition may significantly affect late season herbivores.

5 These results suggest that aspen chemical resistance mechanisms are ineffective during intense episodic eruptions of outbreak folivores such as the forest tent caterpillar. Variable budbreak phenology may lead to differential susceptibility during less intense outbreak years and, at peak forest tent caterpillar population densities, mechanisms affording tolerance are probably more important than chemical defences.

Keywords: Chemical defence; Malacosoma disstria; Populus tremuloides; condensed tannins; defoliation estimation; phenolic glycosides

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: November 1, 2008


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