The ecological impacts of generalist herbivores depend on feeding preferences, which can vary across and within herbivore species. Among mesoherbivores, geographic variation in host use can occur because host plants have a more restricted geographic distribution than does the herbivore, or there is local evolution in host preference, or both. We tested the role of local evolution using the marine amphipod Ampithoe longimana by rearing multiple amphipod populations from three regions (subtropical Florida, warm-temperate North Carolina and cold-temperate New England) and assaying their feeding preferences toward ten seaweeds that occur in some but not all regions. Six of the ten seaweeds produce anti-herbivore secondary metabolites, and we detected geographic variation in feeding preference toward five (Dictyota menstrualis, Dictyota ciliolata, Fucus distichus, Chondrus crispus and Padina gymnospora, but not Caulerpa sertularioides). Amphipod populations that co-occur with a chemically-rich seaweed tended to have stronger feeding preferences for that seaweed, relative to populations that do not co-occur with the seaweed. A direct test indicated that geographic variation in feeding preference toward one seaweed (D. ciliolata) is mediated by feeding tolerance for lipophilic secondary metabolites. Among the four seaweeds that produce no known secondary metabolites (Acanthophora, Ectocarpus, Gracilaria and Hincksia/Feldmannia spp.), we detected no geographic variation in feeding preference. Thus, populations are more likely to evolve greater feeding preferences for local hosts when those hosts produce secondary metabolites. Microevolution of feeding behaviors of generalist marine consumers likely depends on the availability and identity of local hosts and the strength of their chemical defenses.
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