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Poorly camouflaged insects can kick off a cascade of ecological impacts, new CU-Boulder study finds
Date:10/21/2013

A California walking stick insect that has evolved to produce individuals with two distinct appearancesan all-green form that camouflages well with broader leaves and a form with a white stripe running down its back that blends better with needle-like leavescan markedly affect its broader ecological community when the appearance of the bug is mismatched with the plant it's living on.

The new findings, based on research carried out at the University of Colorado Boulder, illustrate the ability of rapid evolution to cause a cascade of ecological impacts.

The scientists found that a walking stick insect that is not well camouflaged is more likely to be eaten by birds, and in turn, those birds are then also more likely to feast on the spiders, caterpillars, plant hoppers, ants and other arthropods living on the same plant. The resulting overall reduction in bugs living on the plant also means that the plant itself was less likely to be attacked by sap-feeding insects.

"Our study shows that the evolution of poor camouflage in one species can affect all the other species living there and affect the plant as well," said Tim Farkas, lead author of the study published in the journal Current Biology. "It's intuitive, but also really surprising."

Farkas led the study as an ecology and evolutionary biology doctoral student in Assistant Professor Patrik Nosil's lab at CU-Boulder. Nosil and CU-Boulder doctoral student Aaron Comeault are also study co-authors. All three have since moved to the University of Sheffield in England.

Evolution is often thought of as a process that unfolds slowly over centuries if not millennia, as individuals with genetic advantages have a greater chance of surviving to pass down their genes to the next generation.

But scientists are increasingly identifying instances when evolution works on a much shorter time scale. An oft-cited example of rapid evolution is the peppered moth. The light
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Contact: Tim Farkas
timothy.farkas@sheffield.ac.uk
University of Colorado at Boulder
Source:Eurekalert  

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