Sap-feeding insects on forest trees along latitudinal gradients in northern Europe: a climate-driven patterns

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Knowledge of the latitudinal patterns in biotic interactions, and especially in herbivory, is crucial for understanding the mechanisms that govern ecosystem functioning and for predicting their responses to climate change. We used sap-feeding insects as a model group to test the hypotheses that the strength of plant–herbivore interactions in boreal forests decreases with latitude and that this latitudinal pattern is driven primarily by midsummer temperatures. We used a replicated sampling design and quantitatively collected and identified all sap-feeding insects from four species of forest trees along five latitudinal gradients (750–1300 km in length, ten sites in each gradient) in northern Europe (59 to 70°N and 10 to 60°E) during 2008–2011. Similar decreases in diversity of sap-feeding insects with latitude were observed in all gradients during all study years. The sap-feeder load (i.e. insect biomass per unit of foliar biomass) decreased with latitude in typical summers, but increased in an exceptionally hot summer and was independent of latitude during a warm summer. Analysis of combined data from all sites and years revealed dome-shaped relationships between the loads of sap-feeders and midsummer temperatures, peaking at 17 °C in Picea abies, at 19.5 °C in Pinus sylvestris and Betula pubescens and at 22 °C in B. pendula. From these relationships, we predict that the losses of forest trees to sap-feeders will increase by 0–45% of the current level in southern boreal forests and by 65–210% in subarctic forests with a 1 °C increase in summer temperatures. The observed relationships between temperatures and the loads of sap-feeders differ between the coniferous and deciduous tree species. We conclude that climate warming will not only increase plant losses to sap-feeding insects, especially in subarctic forests, but can also alter plant-plant interactions, thereby affecting both the productivity and the structure of future forest ecosystems.

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