Background: Plant-feeding insects make up a large part of earth's total biodiversity. While it has been shown that herbivory has repeatedly led to increased diversification rates in insects, there has been no compelling explanation for how plant-feeding has promoted speciation rates. There is a growing awareness that ecological factors can lead to rapid diversification and, as one of the most prominent features of most insect-plant interactions, specialization onto a diverse resource has often been assumed to be the main process behind this diversification. However, specialization is mainly a pruning process, and is not able to actually generate diversity by itself. Here we investigate the role of host colonizations in generating insect diversity, by testing if insect speciation rate is correlated with resource diversity.
Results: By applying a variant of independent contrast analysis, specially tailored for use on questions of species richness (MacroCAIC), we show that species richness is strongly correlated with diversity of host use in the butterfly family Nymphalidae. Furthermore, by comparing the results from reciprocal sister group selection, where sister groups were selected either on the basis of diversity of host use or species richness, we find that it is likely that diversity of host use is driving species richness, rather than vice versa.
Conclusion: We conclude that resource diversity is correlated with species richness in the Nymphalidae and suggest a scenario based on recurring oscillations between host expansions – the incorporation of new plants into the repertoire – and specialization, as an important driving force behind the diversification of plant-feeding insects.
2006. Vol. 6, no 1, 4- p.