Gregarious feeding by insect herbivores is a widely observed, yet poorly understood, behavioral adaptation. Previous research has tested the importance of group feeding for predator deterrence, noting the ubiquity of aposematism among group-feeding insects, but few studies have examined the role of feeding facilitation for aggregates of insect herbivores. We tested the hypothesis that group feeding has facilitative effects on performance of the saddleback caterpillar, Acharia stimulea Clemens, a generalist herbivore of deciduous trees. In an understory forest setting, we reared caterpillars alone or in groups on two different host plants, white oak (Quereus alba L.) and American beech (Fagus grandifolia Ehrlich), and recorded multiple measures of insect performance during regular field censuses. As predicted, A. stimulea caterpillars feeding in groups on white oak had increased relative growth rates compared with caterpillars feeding alone, and the magnitude of this facilitative effect varied among censuses, conferring benefits both early and late in development. By contrast, no facilitative effects of group feeding were detected on beech, suggesting that the benefits of facilitative feeding may be host specific. On both hosts, caterpillar development time was slightly faster for group-feeding cohorts compared with their solitary counterparts. Because early instar caterpillars are particularly vulnerable to predation and parasitism, even modest increases in growth rates and reductions in development time may decrease exposure time to enemies during these vulnerable stages. On both hosts, group feeding also reduced the trade-off between individual development time and cocoon mass, suggesting that feeding efficiency is improved in group feeders relative to solitary caterpillars.
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Vol. 43 • No. 1