What drives ecological specialization in plants and caterpillars in harsh serpentine soils?
The unique physical and chemical properties of serpentine soils (e.g. low nutrient content and high levels of heavy metals) often result in the evolution of unique plant communities with rare and endemic plant species. In turn, the distinct physical and chemical properties of plants should affect herbivore performance and specialization, however, little is known about the consequences of plant specialization on serpentine soils for herbivore diversity. This study will document the unique flora and insect fauna of Santa Elena Peninsula, Costa Rica, and quantify the extent to which habitat specialization in plants and Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) occurs on serpentine soils using observational and experimental approaches. The Santa Elena Peninsula consists of ancient serpentine soils surrounded by younger, volcanic and sedimentary deposits and provides likely conditions for environmental specialization yet the region is underexplored and the effects of plant differentiation on Lepidoptera are unknown.
The results of this study will fill a significant gap in knowledge on tropical serpentine ecology. This study will provide a baseline dataset for developing future work as well as create new national and international collaborations in this area. This study will provide post-doctoral training in plant and insect systematics, soil and plant biochemistry as well as training in undergraduate teaching. The insect specimens will be showcased in K-12 outreach programs at UC-Davis and the study and results will be used to build interactive tools for introductory, undergraduate ecology courses.