The 2011 IGERT cohort spent one week camping outside of Kangerlussuaq in the same site the 2010 cohort chose last year. The first things we noticed upon arriving at our campsite were the incredible views of the Russell glacier, the Little Ice Age moraine, and the glacial meltwater lakes.
But as a close second we noticed that the woody shrubs at the site were all leafless and brown, and that there were many large Lepidoptera larvae (caterpillars) roaming in search of food. This place had experienced a recent caterpillar outbreak. The larvae that were left had no more food to eat, and they crawled up our tents and boots or into any warm microclimate. Northern wheatears and snow buntings came in to camp to eat this easy prey off the tents. Adult moths also flew around in large numbers and we picked them out of our hair and our coffee. We identified this Lepidoptera species as Eurois occulta, the Great Gray Dart moth known to defoliate the dwarf birch and grayleaf willow common in Greenland.
However, the entire landscape was not brown. Many hillsides with similar aspect and distance from the glacier experienced only moderate levels of herbivory and remained green. Farther from the glacier, back toward Kangerlussuaq and the fjord, the brown outbreak patches disappeared. Acting on a hot tip from Mike Avery, a PhD student in Eric Post’s lab at Penn State University, we searched for evidence that caterpillars were attacked by a pathogen – desiccated caterpillar corpses draped in the willow leaves. We found many of these corpses in non-outbreak areas farther from the glacier but did not see any close to the glacier where air temperatures are much cooler.
Why are some hillsides completely brown while others remain green? This is a big question in ecology, and one possible answer is that caterpillars in defoliated areas lack “top-down” controls by predators such as birds, other arthropods, and pathogens. The caterpillar immune system can fight off infection by pathogens (fungal or viral) but this defense requires a high protein diet. In plants much of this protein is RuBisCO, a nitrogen-rich enzyme essential for photosynthesis, and the protein content of leaves is expected to decrease as air temperatures get warmer and the growing season gets longer. Perhaps caterpillars farther from the glacier had less resistance to pathogens because of lower protein content of leaves, or perhaps there are more natural enemies such as birds or arthropods in warmer areas. The birch/willow shrub tundra of West Greenland is a great ecosystem to test competing explanations for why insect herbivores sometimes outbreak and how climate change may alter the frequency and intensity of these outbreaks.