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Landscape complexity differentially benefits generalized fourth, over specialized third, trophic level natural enemies

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The differential loss of higher trophic levels in the face of natural habitat loss can result in the disruption of important trophic interactions, such as biological control. Natural enemies of herbivorous pests in cropping systems often benefit from the presence of natural habitats in surrounding landscapes, as they provide key resources such as alternative hosts. However, any benefits from a biological control perspective may be dampened if this also enhances enemies at the fourth trophic level. Remarkably, studies of the influence of landscape structure on diversity and interactions of fourth trophic‐level natural enemies are largely lacking. We carried out a large‐scale sampling study to investigate the effects of landscape complexity (i.e. the proportion of non‐crop habitat in the landscapes surrounding focal study areas) on the parasitoid communities of aphids in wheat and on an abundant extra‐field plant, stinging nettle. Primary parasitoid communities (3rd trophic level) attacking the cereal aphid, Sitobion avenae, had little overlap with the communities attacking the nettle aphid, Microlophium carnosum, while secondary parasitoids (4th trophic level) showed high levels of species overlap across these two aphids (25 vs 73% shared species respectively), resulting in significantly higher linkage density and lower specialization for secondary than primary parasitoid webs. In wheat, parasitoid diversity was not related to landscape complexity for either primary or secondary parasitoids. Rates of primary parasitism were generally low, while secondary parasitism rates were high (37–94%) and increased significantly with increasing landscape complexity, although this pattern was driven by a single secondary parasitoid species. Overall, our results demonstrate that extra‐field habitats and landscape complexity can differentially benefit fourth, over third, trophic level natural enemies, and thereby, could dampen biological control. Our results further suggest that fourth trophic‐level enemies may play an important, yet understudied, role in linking insect population dynamics across habitat types.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: USDA-ARS Northern plains Agricultural Research Lab, Sidney, MT 59270, USA

Publication date: February 1, 2012

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