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Influences of the invasive tamarisk leaf beetle (Diorhabda carinulata) on avian diets along the Dolores River in Southwestern Colorado USA

August 29, 2018

The tamarisk leaf beetle (Diorhabda carinulata), introduced from Eurasia in 2001 as a biological control agent for the invasive plant Tamarix ramosissima, has spread widely throughout the western USA. With D. carinulata now very abundant, scientists and restoration managers have questioned what influence this introduced arthropod might have upon the avian component of riparian ecosystems. From 2009 through 2012 we studied the consequences of biological invasions of the introduced tamarisk shrub and tamarisk leaf beetles on the diets of native birds along the Dolores River in southwestern Colorado, USA. We examined avian foraging behavior, sampled the arthropod community, documented bird diets and the use of invasive tamarisk shrubs and tamarisk leaf beetles by birds. We documented D. carinulataabundance, on what plants the beetles occurred, and to what degree they were consumed by birds as compared to other arthropods. We hypothesized that if D. carinulata is an important new avian food source, birds should consume beetles at least in proportion to their abundance. We also hypothesized that birds should forage more in tamarisk in the late summer when tamarisk leaf beetle larvae are more abundant than in early summer, and that birds should select beetle-damaged tamarisk shrubs. We found that D. carinulata composed 24.0 percent (± 19.9–27.4%) and 35.4% biomass of all collected arthropods. From the gut contents of 188 birds (25 passerine species), only four species (n = 11 birds) contained tamarisk leaf beetle parts. Although D. carinulata comprised one-quarter of total insect abundance, frequency of occurrence in bird gut contents was only 2.1% by abundance and 3.4% biomass. Birds used tamarisk shrubs for foraging in proportion to their availability, but foraging frequency did not increase during the late summer when more tamarisk leaf beetles were present and birds avoided beetle-damaged tamarisk shrubs. Despite D. carinulata being the most abundant arthropod in the environment, these invasive beetles were not frequently consumed by birds and seem not to provide a significant contribution to avian diets.