Pathogen-driven outbreaks in forest defoliators revisited: Building models from experimental data

Greg Dwyer, Jonathan Dushoff, Joseph S. Elkinton, Simon Asher Levin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

111 Scopus citations


Models of outbreaks in forest-defoliating insects are typically built from a priori considerations and tested only with long time series of abundances. We instead present a model built from experimental data on the gypsy moth and its nuclear polyhedrosis virus, which has been extensively tested with epidemic data. These data have identified key details of the gypsy moth-virus interaction that are missing from earlier models, including seasonality in host reproduction, delays between host infection and death, and heterogeneity among hosts in their susceptibility to the virus. Allowing for these details produces models in which annual epidemics are followed by bouts of reproduction among surviving hosts and leads to quite different conclusions than earlier models. First, these models suggest that pathogen-driven outbreaks in forest defoliators occur partly because newly hatched insect larvae have higher average susceptibility than do older larvae. Second, the models show that a combination of seasonality and delays between infection and death can lead to unstable cycles in the absence of a stabilizing mechanism; these cycles, however, are stabilized by the levels of heterogeneity in susceptibility that we have observed in our experimental data. Moreover, our experimental estimates of virus transmission rates and levels of heterogeneity in susceptibility in gypsy moth populations give model dynamics that closely approximate the dynamics of real gypsy moth populations. Although we built our models from data for gypsy moth, our models are, nevertheless, quite general. Our conclusions are therefore likely to be true, not just for other defoliator-pathogen interactions, but for many host-pathogen interactions in which seasonality plays an important role. Our models thus give qualitative insight into the dynamics of host-pathogen interactions, while providing a quantitative interpretation of our gypsy moth-virus data.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)105-120
Number of pages16
JournalAmerican Naturalist
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2000

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


  • Heterogeneity in susceptibility
  • Host-pathogen interactions
  • Lymantria dispar
  • Mathematical models
  • Nuclear polyhedrosis virus


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