Do predators aggregate in response to pest density in agroecosystems? Assessing within-field spatial patterns.
The spatial heterogeneity of predator populations is an important component of ecological theories pertaining to predator-prey dynamics. Most studies within agricultural fields show spatial correlation (positive or negative) between mean predator numbers and prey abundance across a whole field over time but generally ignore the within-field spatial dimension. We used explicit spatial mapping to determine if generalist predators aggregated within a soyabean field, the size of these aggregations and if predator aggregation was associated with pest aggregation, plant damage and predation rate. The study was conducted at Gatton in the Lockyer Valley, 90 km west of Brisbane, Australia. Intensive sampling grids were used to investigate within-field spatial patterns. The first row of each grid was located in a lucerne field (10 m from interface) and the remaining rows were in an adjacent soyabean field. At each point on the grid the abundance of foliage-dwelling and ground-dwelling pests and predators was measured, predation rates [using sentinel Helicoverpa armigera (Hübner) egg cards] and plant damage were estimated. Eight grids were sampled across two summer cropping seasons (2000/01, 2001/02). Predators exhibited strong spatial patterning with regions of high and low abundance and activity within what are considered to be uniform soyabean fields. Ground-dwelling and foliage-dwelling predators were often aggregated in patches approximately 40 m across. Lycosidae (wolf spiders) displayed aggregation and were consistently more abundant within the lucerne, with a decreasing trap catch with distance from the lucrene/soybean interface. This trend was consistent between subsequent grids in a single field and between fields. The large amount of spatial variability in within-field arthropod abundance (pests and predators) and activity (egg predation and plant damage) indicates that whole field averages were misleading. This result has serious implications for sampling of arthropod abundance and pest management decision-making based on scouting data. There was a great deal of temporal change in the significant spatial patterns observed within a field at each sampling time point during a single season. Predator and pest aggregations observed in these fields were generally not stable for the entire season. Predator aggregation did not correlate consistently with pest aggregation, plant damage or predation rate. Spatial patterns in predator abundance were not associated consistently with any single parameter measured. The most consistent positive association was between foliage-dwelling predators and pests (significant in four of seven grids). Inferring associations between predators and prey based on an intensive one-off sampling grid is difficult, due to the temporal variability in the abundance of each group. Synthesis and applications. This study demonstrated that generalist predator populations are rarely distributed randomly and field edges and adjacent crops can have an influence on within-field predator abundance. This must be considered when estimating arthropod (pest and predator) abundance from a set of samples taken at random locations within a field.