Material affects attack rates on dummy caterpillars in tropical forest where arthropod predators dominate: an experiment using clay and dough dummies with green colourants on various plant species

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Predation can be one of the key factors that determine abundance in insect herbivore communities, and drive evolution of body size, and anti-predator traits, including crypsis. Population dynamics and selection pressures will depend on the identity of dominant predators in the system, and these may vary substantially among habitats. Arthropods emerge as chief predators on caterpillars in the understorey of non-montane tropical forest, whereas birds dominate elsewhere. In a tropical forest in Uganda, Africa, we evaluated marks on dummy caterpillars that differed in size, material (clay vs. dough), colourant, and plant species on which dummy caterpillars were exposed. We included live caterpillars to estimate the extent to which studies using artificial caterpillars reflect actual levels of predation. Ants and wasps were the most important damagers of dummy caterpillars, whereas bug and beetle damage was very rare, and no bird or small mammal damage was observed. Daily attack rates did not differ significantly from apparent mortality of live caterpillars (daily mortality = 12.1%), but dummy caterpillars made from dough were attacked more frequently (daily attack rate = 18.4%) than those from clay (daily attack rate = 6.9%). Caterpillars of different colour and size, and caterpillars exposed on different plant species had the same chances to be predated. This is in contrast to results from temperate area studies where birds dominate and are not affected by dummy caterpillar material, but prefer larger caterpillars. Our results are consistent with dominant predators on tropical forest caterpillars being invertebrates that are more chemically than visually oriented, so that: (1) material used for dummy caterpillars is important, (2) background matching is relatively unimportant, and (3) being large may have less of a cost. These patterns in predation might facilitate polyphagy and evolution of large body size in tropical Lepidoptera.

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