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Host plant associations of Lepidoptera and implications for forest bird management at Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge

July 11, 2022

Forests dominated or co-dominated by ‘ōhi‘a (Metrosideros polymorpha) are critical to most Hawaiian forest birds, but fungal diseases causing Rapid ‘Ōhi‘a Death (ROD) threaten ‘ōhi‘a-based food webs that support native bird communities on Hawai‘i Island. Caterpillars are the most frequently consumed arthropod prey of native birds and their young and are especially frequent in the diets of one threatened (T) and three endangered (E) species (“listed” species) at Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge (Hakalau): ‘akiapōlā‘au (Hemignathus wilsoni, E), ‘alawī (Hawai‘i creeper; Loxops mana, E), Hawai‘i ‘ākepa (L. coccineus, E), and ‘i‘iwi (Drepanis coccinea, T). Hakalau harbors the largest and most stable populations of listed forest birds in Hawai‘i, presumably due to the availability of food resources and the extent of suitable, managed habitat above the range of mosquito-borne avian malaria. Because a previous study indicated that only a few caterpillar species were important in the diets of listed birds at Hakalau, we investigated the distribution of caterpillars on common host plants available to foraging birds. Eleven native plant species hosted two or more taxa identified to genus or species, with at least seven from ‘ōhi‘a, six from koa (Acacia koa), and five from ‘ākala (Rubus hawaiensis). We identified 16 taxa to genus or species from 9 families, assigning 11 to species. Leaves, which were the focus of our sampling effort, were the substrate used by 20 caterpillar taxa, and dead wood or bark was used by 7 taxa. In a previous study, we classified 19 morphotypes of caterpillar mandibles in the diets of native and alien birds at Hakalau, and in the present study we dissected mandibles from caterpillars that likely matched 10 of those morphotypes. These 10 morphotypes potentially represented >95% of caterpillar prey found in the earlier diet study and were collected from 11 host plant species, with ‘ōhi‘a hosting 8 morphotypes, 4 of which were exclusive to ‘ōhi‘a. The most widely hosted morphotype was found on all 11 plant species that we sampled, including ‘ōhi‘a, but the other 9 morphotypes were found on 1–7 hosts. As shown by the previous diet study, each of the listed bird species consumed caterpillar prey consisting mostly of combinations of two morphotypes drawn from a pool of only five, indicating a high degree of specialization. In the present study, we collected three of the five key morphotypes only on ‘ōhi‘a, highlighting the importance of this tree to listed bird species. Because ‘ōhi‘a forests in Hakalau remain vulnerable to ROD, measures to mitigate the impacts of reduced ‘ōhi‘a cover are important to consider from the perspective of forest bird food webs and diet. Ongoing reforestation of former pasturelands with koa and common understory species should provide alternative caterpillar prey for forest birds. Our results and information from the literature indicate that koa supports, to varying degrees, nearly all forest birds at Hakalau, while ‘ākala, ‘ōhelo (Vaccinium calycinum), kōlea (Myrsine lessertiana), ‘ōlapa (Cheirodendron trigynum), pūkiawe (Leptecophylla tameiameiae), and māmaki (Pipturus albidus) could benefit bird populations by increasing prey availability and structural complexity in koa-dominated stands. Foraging studies and additional research to identify species and host plant associations of important forest bird prey, including caterpillars and other arthropods, can help managers evaluate the complex interactions between native forest birds and their food webs and habitats.

Publication Year 2022
Title Host plant associations of Lepidoptera and implications for forest bird management at Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge
Authors Paul C. Banko, Robert W. Peck, Maya Munstermann, Kelly Jaenecke
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype State or Local Government Series
Series Title Hawaii Cooperative Studies Unit Technical Report
Series Number 104
Index ID 70233474
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Pacific Island Ecosystems Research Center