Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Granting Department

Biology (Integrative Biology)

Major Professor

Peter D. Stiling


associational resistance, biological invasion, cacti, larval performance, oviposition, predation


The invasive cactus moth, Cactoblastis cactorum, poses a threat to opunitoid cacti species of North America. The following work contains four separate studies investigating C. cactorum host plant preference and performance, predation and parastitism of C. cactorum, effects of C. cactorum on local Opuntia populations, and associational effects of host and non-host plants on C. cactorum and native Opuntia-feeding herbivores. We found that, among southwestern and Mexican opuntioid taxa, moths preferred O. engelmannii var. linguiformis and var. engelmannii for oviposition, while Consolea rubescens and O. streptacantha were superior larval hosts. Oviposition was best predicted by number of cladodes and degree of spininess; epidermal toughness was a significant predictor of most larval fitness parameters. In general, oviposition preference was not correlated with larval performance. A lack of co-evolutionary history between C. cactorum and North American opuntioid species may help explain this disconnect. We placed irradiated C. cactorum eggsticks and pupae on Opuntia plants in the field to test for predation. We found evidence of predation, most likely from ants, on ~16% of eggsticks and ~18% of pupae. Predation rates, ant abundance, and cladode growth were higher, and C. cactorum damage lower, on Opuntia located near the extrafloral nectar-producing legume Chamaecrista fasciculata. We attribute these associational effects to the ability of C. fasciculata to attract ants to its extrafloral nectar. Over the course of six years, ~78% of nearly 600 tagged Opuntia were attacked by C. cactorum at least once and ~76% of the plants survived. Two separate studies found that Opuntia stricta was more likely to be attacked by C. cactorum than O. humifusa; we also found that O. stricta was more likely to die following an attack. A plant's odds of survival decreased as C. cactorum attack frequency increased, but plants that did survive had positive growth rates, regardless of attack status. We did not find significant evidence of associational effects for O. humifusa and O. stricta, either for C. cactorum or native Opuntia-feeding herbivores. It could be that present herbivore densities are low enough, and host plants plentiful enough, to avoid mechanisms that usually lead to associational resistance or susceptibility. Overall, our results suggest that the presence and spread of C. cactorum should be taken seriously, especially for rare opuntioids and the Opuntia-rich deserts of North America. However, for more common opuntioid host species, there may be enough resistant or tolerant individuals, and sufficient top down control through ant predation, for populations to persist at current C. cactorum densities. We acknowledge that information on Opuntia reproduction and recruitment rates are needed to confirm this suggestion, and see this as an excellent opportunity for future research