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Insect herbivores are integral to terrestrial ecosystems. They provide essential food for higher trophic levels and aid in nutrient cycling. In general, research tends to relate individual insect herbivore species to host plant identity, where a species will show preference for one host over another. In contrast, insect herbivore assemblages are often related to host plant richness where an area with a higher richness of hosts will also have a higher richness of herbivores. In this study, the ability of these two approaches (host plant identity/abundance vs. host plant richness) to describe the diversity, richness, and abundance of an herbivorous Lepidoptera assemblage in temperate forest fragments in southern Canada is tested. Analyses indicated that caterpillar diversity, richness, and abundance were better described by quadrat-scale host plant identity and abundance than by host plant richness. Most host plant-herbivore studies to date have only considered investigating host plant preferences at a species level; the type of assemblage level preference shown in this study has been rarely considered. In addition, host plant replacement simulations indicate that increasing the abundance of preferred host plants could increase Lepidoptera richness and abundance by as much as 30% and 40% respectively in disturbed remnant forest fragments. This differs from traditional thinking that suggests higher levels of insect richness can be best obtained by maximizing plant richness. Host plant species that are highly preferred by the forest-dwelling caterpillar assemblage should be given special management and conservation considerations to maximize biodiversity in forest communities.
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