You are on page 1of 4

Defoliation of Quaking Aspen by Western Tent Caterpillars

Ava Stills, Cole Elliot, Analise Gates

In Southwest Colorado you can step out of a building and see a different ecosystem
everywhere you look; one such ecosystem is the Subalpine Forest. Subalpine Forests are located
at elevations from 9,000-11,400 feet. These are the highest forested ecosystems, in Colorado,
with steep slopes covered with dense amounts of coniferous trees and shallow soils.
This ecosystem is home to many abiotic and biotic factors. Abiotic factors are the
nonliving and physical aspects of the environment, biotic factors are the living components in the
ecosystem. There are many biotic and abiotic factors in the subalpine forests including; biotic
factors such as various pine and fir, wolverines, lynx and elk, and importantly Western Tent
Caterpillars and Quaking Aspen. Abiotic factors in this ecosystem includes nutrient rich soil,
water, high winds, and cold temperatures. Within the Subalpine Forests there are many
ecological relationships, one of these includes a parasitic relationship, where one organism
benefits off of the other while harming it. The parasitic relationship is between the Western Tent
Caterpillar and the Quaking Aspen.
In this relationship the Western Tent Caterpillar defoliation, eats away all of the leaves of,
the Quaking Aspen trees. This defoliation causes reduced growth and reduced fruit production of
the Aspens. The increase of Western Tent Caterpillar in the Subalpine Ecosystem has lead to
increased mortality of Quaking Aspens along with other species that the trees provide food and
shelter for. As Western Tent Caterpillar infestations increase; more Quaking Aspen trees are
defoliated affecting not only the trees themselves but the other trees that benefit from the Aspens
along with the animals that survive in the Subalpine Forests.
The Western Tent Caterpillar, a native insect found in forests throughout much of the
western United States, southern Canada and parts of northern Mexico, is a major a defoliator of
trees and shrubs in Subalpine Forests. Although the species name refers to tents, the Western
Tent Caterpillars do not create tents like other Malacosoma species. Instead, western tent
caterpillars create silky mats on branches and trunks where the insects gather to sleep. The
insects host upon a wide range of hardwood tree and shrub species. Quaking aspen is the
preferred host, specifically in the central and southern Rocky Mountains.

When discussing the damage Tent caterpillars have on Quaking Aspens, The USDA
Forest Health Protection Services states, [s]uccessive years of defoliation of aspen and other
hosts can cause reduced diameter growth, branch dieback and top-kill, reduced production on
fruit trees, and, in rare cases, mortality. In Colorado, entire aspen stands across large areas
have been defoliated by the caterpillars. The insects gather in groups to eat, consuming entire
leaves and stripping branches of foliage. Despite this, tent caterpillars are more of a nuisance
than a threat to Apens says author Amber Kelsey. Studies by Oregon State University
Extension Service suggest that [t]here's no part of the [western tent caterpillar] life cycle that
actually harms the tree. Even in a small tree, it doesn't kill it." However, severe infestations can
defoliate entire trees, and repeated defoliation can cause plant growth and branch dieback .

Studies done by The Society of Population Ecology shows that the survival rate of Western Tent
Caterpillars vary through the amount of herbivory the insect takes part in. The survival rate
reduces when the insect has higher levels of defoliation meaning that intense outbreaks result in
the decreasing survival rate of both Tent Caterpillars and Aspens.
Within Subalpine forests, Western Tent Caterpillars remain a key biotic species to the
ecosystem despite their positive or negative impacts on Quaking Aspens. The caterpillars play an

important role in the lifespan of a Quaking Aspen tree. Numerous other species are affected by
the widespread tree specie thus shaping the Subalpine Forest ecosystem and its health.

There could potentially be several impacts of the western tent caterpillar and quaking
aspens. One there could be major damage to the trees if there is heavy defoliation or frequently
repeated defoliation in the outbreaks of the western tent caterpillars. Another is if there is heavy
defoliation and repeated foliation then there could possibly be tree mortality. Defoliation
decreases leaf grow back and can cause death in branches and twigs and eventually tree
There are several different factors that are being impacted by the outbreaks. The trees for
one and the western tent caterpillars. Other species that the trees provide food and shelter to if
three mortality is present.
There are several options when thinking about solutions to the outbreaks. The first
solution is do nothing. Trees usually survive the defoliation and come back. The second is to
spray a pesticide called Bacillus thuringiensis during mid may to early june depending on
weather conditions. This option is more based on larger areas with heavy defoliation and or
repeated defoliation. And the third solution is for small areas that are affected or singular trees.
We can place barriers on trees, remove egg masses before they hatch, we can remove larvae
when congregated, and we can spray the pesticide. We can also prune the branches if we see any
eggs or maggots. If you see them on the trees you can cut off the branch and put it in a bucket of
soapy water.
The limitations on these solutions are very slim. The pesticide is the only real limitation
and the only limitation on it is finding it to spray and it is readily available if spraying needed to
be done. So all in all The Western Tent Caterpillars are a natural part of the Subalpine Forest
ecosystem and can be a nuisance at times but naturally never do enough harm to cause major
damage to the ecosystem. They actually help clear foliage in the forests habitats so that new
blossoms of growth can grow. Although they can kill off Quaking Aspens if they have heavy
defoliation they are still a part of the ecosystem and are very important to the survival of the
Subalpine forest Ecosystem.

You might also like