Climate change and range expansion of an aggressive bark beetle: evidence of higher beetle reproduction in naïve host tree populations.
Hosts may evolve defences that make them less susceptible and suitable to herbivores impacting their fitness. Due to climate change-driven range expansion, herbivores are encountering naïve host populations with increasing frequency. Aggressive bark beetles are among the most important agents of disturbance in coniferous forest ecosystems. The presence of bark beetle outbreaks in areas with a historically unsuitable climate, in part a consequence of climate change, provided an opportunity to assess the hypothesis that the mountain pine beetle Dendroctonus ponderosae has higher reproductive success in lodgepole pine Pinus contorta trees growing in areas that have not previously experienced frequent outbreaks. We felled and sampled mountain pine beetle-killed trees from historically climatically suitable and unsuitable areas, i.e. areas with and without a historical probability of frequent outbreaks. Reproductive success was determined from a total of 166 trees from 14 stands. Brood productivity was significantly affected by climatic suitability class, such that mean brood production per female increased as historical climatic suitability decreased. Synthesis and applications. The current study demonstrates that the mountain pine beetle has higher reproductive success in areas where its host trees have not experienced frequent beetle epidemics, which includes much of the current outbreak area in north central British Columbia. This increased productivity of mountain pine beetle is likely to have been a key reason for the rapid population buildup that resulted in unprecedented host tree mortality over huge areas in western Canada. The outbreak thus provides an example of how climate change-driven range expansion of native forest insects can have potentially disastrous consequences. Since an increased reproductive success is likely to accelerate the progression of outbreaks, it is particularly critical to manage forests for the maintenance of a mosaic of species and age classes at the landscape level in areas where host tree populations are naïve to eruptive herbivores.