Keystone Plants: Essential Components of Restored Landscapes

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Douglas W. Tallamy and Desiree Narango

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Functional food webs are essential for the successful conservation and restoration of ecological communities, and in terrestrial systems, food webs are built on a foundation of coevolved interactions between plants and their consumers. Because caterpillars transfer more energy from plants to other organisms than any other herbivores, they are essential components of vibrant terrestrial food webs. Yet most caterpillar species are host plant specialists; thus, all plant species are not equal in their ability to produce caterpillar biomass. Here, we collate published data on host plant ranges and associated host plant-Lepidoptera interactions from across the United States and demonstrate that across ecoregions, distributions of plant-herbivore interactions are consistently skewed, with a small percentage of native plant genera supporting the majority of Lepidoptera. Just 5% of local native plant genera support 75% of the local lepidoptera; 14% support 90% of the Lepidoptera. Plant identities critical for retaining interaction diversity are similar and independent of geography. We call these hyperproductive plants keystone genera. Just as keystones supported Roman arches, keystone genera must be included in landscapes to achieve complex, stable food webs. Given the importance of Lepidoptera to food webs and ecosystem function, efficient and effective restoration of degraded landscapes depends on the inclusion of such keystone plants.

Resource Type:
Conference Presentation, SER2021

Pre-approved for CECs under SER's CERP program