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Predators of caterpillars (Lepidoptera larvae) can indirectly enhance economic gains from plant resources by reducing herbivore damage to plants. For this study, we directly observed predation of caterpillars on understory trees in the Ozarks. Our objectives were to determine the relative importance of diurnal guilds of caterpillar predators, the time of day most diurnal predation events occur, and whether predators spend more time feeding in open or closed canopy areas. Once per month, June-September, we tethered caterpillars to understory saplings and recorded all predation events. Only invertebrate predators were observed feeding on caterpillars, and most predation events were attributed to ants and vespids (wasps, hornets and yellow jackets). Predation by vertebrate predators such as birds, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians was not observed. Most predation events took place at mid-day between 1200 and 1600 hrs. Predation pressure differed significantly over the four observation dates with peak ant predation in July and peak vespid predation in September. Canopy environment appeared to influence predation events as there was a trend towards higher vespid predation of caterpillars on open canopy as opposed to closed canopy saplings. Ants and vespids accounted for 90% of observed predation events; therefore they appear to be important predators of caterpillars during the summer months. Future studies at earlier sampling dates would be valuable in determining whether the relative importance of other diurnal guilds of caterpillar predators might be greater in the spring.
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Predation of caterpillars on understory saplings in an Ozark forest