Cronin, J. T. 2011. Spatial ecology of the palm-leaf skeletonizer, Homaledra sabalella (Lepidoptera: Coleophoridae). PLoS One 6(7): e22331. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0022331


Understanding the processes that determine the distribution of populations is a fundamental goal in ecology. In this study, I determined the relative contribution of space and the biotic and abiotic environment to the distribution of the palm-leaf skeletonizer Homaledra sabalella (PLS; Lepidoptera: Coleophoridae) among patchily distributed dwarf palmettos (Sabal minor; Arecaceae). Based on surveys conducted at two sites in the Sherburne Wildlife Management Area, Louisiana, I found that the distribution of the PLS was primarily related to local environmental conditions – number of PLS increased with palmetto height, was greater in dry versus wet habitats, and varied in an inconsistent way with the type of understory cover. Spatial structure of the forest and isolation of the host plant were of minor importance to the distribution of the PLS. Based on a series of experiments, the mechanisms underlying the effects of these environmental variables on PLS abundance were elucidated. Tall palmettos have a greater abundance of PLS because they are 2.5 times more likely to be colonized than small palmettos. Tall palmettos do not represent better hosts (in terms of PLS survival to pupation, pupal length, or risk of parasitism). Similarly, an open understory increased colonization by two-fold, relative to a shrub understory, but understory type had no effect on host quality. Wet soils greatly reduced palmetto quality as a host (survival and pupal length), but only for the smallest palmettos (< 0.75 m height). Finally, corroborating the survey data, my dispersal experiment revealed that the PLS is a strong flier and that local PLS populations (i.e., infested palmettos) are likely well connected by dispersal. I conclude by discussing how landscape-level changes at Sherburne Wildlife Management Area, owing to recent hurricane activity, could affect the risk of palmetto infestation by the PLS.

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