Locust outbreaks and migration in the Asian steppe: the influence of land management practices and host plant nutrient status
Land management practices such as domestic animal grazing can alter plant communities via changes in soil structure and chemistry, species composition, and plant nutrient content. These changes can affect the abundance and quality of plants consumed by insect herbivores with consequent changes in population dynamics. These population changes can translate to massive crop damage and pest control costs. My dissertation focused on Oedaleus asiaticus, a dominant Asian locust, and had three main objectives. First, I identified morphological, physiological, and behavioral characteristics of the migratory ("brown") and non-migratory ("green") phenotypes. I found that brown morphs had longer wings, larger thoraxes and higher metabolic rates compared to green morphs, suggesting that developmental plasticity allows greater migratory capacity in the brown morph of this locust. Second, I tested the hypothesis of a causal link between livestock overgrazing and an increase in migratory swarms of O. asiaticus. Current paradigms generally assume that increased plant nitrogen (N) should enhance herbivore performance by relieving protein-limitation, increasing herbivorous insect populations. I showed, in contrast to this scenario, that host plant N-enrichment and high protein artificial diets decreased the size and viability of O. asiaticus. Plant N content was lowest and locust abundance highest in heavily livestock-grazed fields where soils were N-depleted, likely due to enhanced erosion and leaching. These results suggest that heavy livestock grazing promotes outbreaks of this locust by reducing plant protein content. Third, I tested for the influence of dietary imbalance, in conjunction with high population density, on migratory plasticity. While high population density has clearly been shown to induce the migratory morph in several locusts, the effect of diet has been unclear. I found that locusts reared at high population density and fed unfertilized plants (i.e. high quality plants for O. asiaticus) had the greatest migratory capacity, and maintained a high percent of brown locusts. These results did not support the hypothesis that poor-quality resources increased expression of migratory phenotypes. This highlights a need to develop new theoretical frameworks for predicting how environmental factors will regulate migratory plasticity in locusts and perhaps other insects.