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Multi-species herbivore outbreak follows El Nio drought in Panama

Plant-eating insects inhabit all forest ecosystems, but sometimes their numbers explode, resulting in massive tree defoliation. In the October issue of the Journal of Tropical Ecology researchers from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) associate a severe moth outbreak with drought conditions following the 1997-1998 El Nio Southern Oscillation (ENSO) event in a dry lowland forest near Panama's Pacific coast. If ENSO events become more common, repeated herbivore outbreaks might alter forest species composition.

"Although we regularly monitor insect populations from STRI's Canopy Crane system, we were actually tipped off about the outbreak by the crane operator, who complained that his parked car was covered with insect droppings," explains STRI post-doctoral fellow, Sunshine Van Bael.

Moth larvae devoured 250% more leaf material than usual even as researchers were setting up an experimental protocol to monitor herbivores and leaf damage on twenty tree species reachable from the gondola on the arm of a 42 m tall modified construction crane in Panama City's Metropolitan Park. The crane, one of two in Panama and nine worldwide, permits scientists to ascend into the treetops to study previously inaccessible aspects of forest dynamics and species diversity.

Dr. Annette Aiello, Staff Scientist at STRI noted smaller outbreaks at five other Pacific coast sites. Wondering if this was a country-wide phenomenon, entomologists at STRI's research station on Barro Colorado Island and at the Sherman Canopy Crane near Panama's Atlantic coast were advised to be on the lookout for increases in butterfly and moth larvae populations. However, lepidopteran numbers remained stable there. Whatever it was that caused the the Pacific Coast outbreak did not occur or have the same effect where rainfall levels were more constant.

"This outbreak was unusual because it involved a dozen insect species, and followed a drought associated with one of t
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Contact: Beth King
kingb@si.edu
202-786-2094 x8216
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
15-Oct-2004


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