Phenological mismatch has been proposed as a key mechanism by which climate change can increase the severity of insect outbreaks. Spruce budworm (Choristoneura fumiferana) is a serious defoliator of North American conifers that feeds on buds in the early spring. Black spruce (Picea mariana) has traditionally been considered a poor-quality host plant since its buds open later than those of the preferred host, balsam fir (Abies balsamea). We hypothesize that advancing black spruce budbreak phenology under a warmer climate would improve its phenological synchrony with budworm and hence increase both its suitability as a host plant and resulting defoliation damage. We evaluated the relationship between tree phenology and both budworm performance and tree defoliation by placing seven cohorts of budworm larvae on black spruce and balsam fir branches at different lags with tree budburst. Our results show that on both host plants, spruce budworm survival and pupal mass decrease sharply when budbreak occurs prior to larval emergence. By contrast, emergence before budbreak decreases survival, but does not negatively impact growth or reproductive output. We also document phytochemical changes that occur as needles mature and define a window of opportunity for the budworm. Finally, larvae that emerged in synchrony with budbreak had the greatest defoliating effect on black spruce. Our results suggest that in the event of advanced black spruce phenology due to climate warming, this host species will support better budworm survival and suffer increased defoliation.
Oecologia – Springer Journals
Published: Jul 29, 2017
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