The western bean cutworm, Striacosta albicosta (Smith) (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae), is a pest of both corn and dry bean crops. At the beginning of the 21st century, the species began to extend its range out of the Great Plains, eastward through the Corn Belt. This rapid range expansion is remarkable because the species distribution had been stable for at least the previous half century, despite the apparent abundance of suitable habitat (i.e., cornfields) immediately to the east. We hypothesized that if the western bean cutworm had to overcome a stable barrier to movement before starting the current range expansion, it probably experienced a genetic bottleneck in doing so. To test this hypothesis, variation in the mitochondrial NADH dehydrogenase one (ND1) gene was studied in populations from Wyoming, Nebraska, and Iowa. No differences in overall genetic diversity or haplotype frequencies indicative of a bottleneck were observed between the recently founded populations in Iowa and the established populations in Wyoming and Nebraska. This result suggests that the sudden loss of an ecological exclusion mechanism, allowing the species to move east in appreciable numbers, is more likely to have triggered the range expansion than the surmounting of an extrinsic barrier to movement. The nature of this mechanism is unknown but might be related to recent changes in corn farming practices and technology.
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