Climate constrains the establishment and proliferation of Anthonomus santacruzi, a flower-feeding biological control agent of the invasive weed Solanum mauritianum in South Africa
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The flowerbud-feeding weevil Anthonomus santacruzi Hustache (Coleoptera: Curculionidae) was released in South Africa in 2008 for the biological control of the invasive tree Solanum mauritianum Scopoli (Solanaceae). The weevil was widely deployed throughout KwaZulu-Natal province, which supports large S. mauritianum infestations, and has become well established in its warmer coastal regions. The aim of this study was to provide field evidence that climate is constraining the weevil’s distribution in South Africa. Solanum mauritianum populations were sampled at 23 sites across an altitudinal gradient in KwaZulu-Natal to determine A. santacruzi densities in relation to food availability and climatic variables. Despite significantly higher amounts of floral material on S. mauritianum at the higher altitude inland sites, A. santacruzi numbers were significantly higher at the lower altitude coastal sites. There was thus a significant negative relationship between A. santacruzi numbers and altitude and significant positive relationships between A. santacruzi numbers and both temperature and humidity. Neither rainfall nor food availability influenced A. santacruzi numbers, although lower amounts of floral material at the coastal sites may well have been caused by higher weevil densities at these sites. Anthonomus santacruzi was absent at only three sites, all at higher altitudes, further demonstrating that conditions in coastal or low-altitude regions are favourable for establishment and population proliferation. Future release efforts in KwaZulu-Natal, but also in other South African provinces, should thus be focused on coastal regions and inland regions that are below 1000 m above sea level.