Specificity within bird-parasite-parasitoid food webs: a novel approach for evaluating potential biological control agents of the avian vampire fly.
Quantitative food web analyses can provide insights into the specificity of consumers such as herbivores, parasites and parasitoids. Understanding such patterns can be useful in forecasting the potential benefits and risks of biological control agents being considered for introduction against invasive species. The avian vampire fly, Philornis downsi (Diptera: Muscidae), is a neotropical bird parasite that is invasive in the Galapagos Islands, where it is causing substantial mortality of endemic bird species. We used a novel in-field experimental food web approach within the native range of P. downsi in Ecuador to test the hypotheses that pupal parasitoids known to attack P. downsi specialize on members of the genus Philornis, which occur only in bird nests. We deployed pupae of non-Philornis fly species adjacent to bird nests to assess specificity of the parasitoids and used two indices to assess specificity: Resource Range (RR), which evaluates the breadth of host use, and Pair Difference Index (PDI), which evaluates interaction strength. The results revealed very strong compartmentalization within the guild of pupal fly parasitoids, with four species attacking only Philornis spp. Both specificity indices indicated significant levels of specificity towards the genus Philornis for two of these species: Conura annulifera and Trichopria sp. novus. We also assessed the specificity of the two dominant Philornis species attacking 11 bird species and preference of the two dominant parasitoid species for bird species. Although there was some significant preference for particular bird species by the Philornis spp., there was no indication that this drove specificity patterns by the parasitoids. Policy implications. Our results confirm previous laboratory studies indicating specificity by C. annulifera and support the hypothesis that this species would produce few, if any, nontarget impacts if released into Galapagos to suppress populations of the P. downsi. These results can inform an environmental risk assessment framework to guide governmental agencies in deliberation on potential field releases of parasitoids in the Galapagos Islands.