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INSECTS OF THE BOREAL ZONE OF CANADA

  • H.V. Danks (a1) and R.G. Foottit (a2)

Abstract

The boreal zone of Canada extends across the continent over millions of square kilometres. Characterizing the insects of this cool temperate zone is especially important for an understanding of the Canadian fauna in general, and for northern forestry. The boreal zone supports simple coniferous forests with some deciduous trees and an understory of a few common vascular plants, mosses, and lichens. This enormous area of apparently similar vegetation nevertheless shows very great spatial and temporal heterogeneity, with a wide range of subhabitats. Aquatic habitats of many different kinds are especially well represented in the zone. The diversity of terrestrial habitats is maintained chiefly by disturbance, especially fire and seasonal flooding, and contributes greatly to faunal diversity.

About 22 000 insect species are estimated to occur in the zone, far fewer than in more southern zones. Northern taxa, notably Diptera, are relatively well represented. The distributions and patterns of variation of the species are summarized. About half have transcontinental ranges, and many occur also in forested habitats in the western mountains south of the boreal zone. About 8% of the species appear to be holarctic. Few species that occur in the boreal zone are strictly confined to it, however. Generalist species in fresh water and other widespread habitats are conspicuous. Many species are centred farther south, and extend northward into the zone to varying degrees.

Adaptations to northern conditions have been reported in many boreal insects. For example, the short growing season is reflected by the prevalence of univoltine species. Insects survive the long cold winters by cold-hardiness and dormancies. Species from disturbed habitats disperse widely. The limited diversity of resources is confirmed by the fact that the food range of some groups of herbivores is wider than in their southern relatives.

Boreal ecosystem relationships are complex, especially relative to the arctic. Numerous associations among insects, and between insects and other organisms, have been demonstrated. However, some evidence suggests that the structure of northern biotic communities might depend more on the tolerances of individual species than on interactions among the species.

The population dynamics of boreal forest insects, notably the spruce budworm, are discussed. In view of the spatial and temporal complexity of the boreal zone, the diversity of interactions with abiotic and biotic factors, and the prevalence of data that correlate with rather than explain population changes, our current failure to understand “outbreaks” of certain boreal insects is not surprising, because many factors probably combine to determine the population of a given species at a given lime and place.

Information on most aspects of the composition and biology of the boreal fauna is incomplete. Data on boreal species have been collected chiefly in southern transitional ecosystems adjacent to boreal zones, rather than in truly boreal systems. Basic taxonomic information on several important taxa, as well as detailed taxonomic and morphometric information about individual species, is especially scanty. However, substantial and coordinated studies of boreal faunas will yield information of great interest and value. Some approaches relevant to further work in taxonomic and ecological arenas are suggested.

La zone boréale du Canada couvre des millions de kilomètres carrés d’un bout à l’autre du continent. La caractérisation des insectes de cette zone fraîche tempérée est particulièrement importante pour la connaissance de la faune canadienne en général, et pour la foresterie dans le Nord. La zone boréale renferme des forêts de conifères simples ainsi que quelques feuillus et un sous-étage composé de quelques plantes vasculaires communes, de mousses et de lichens. Cette immense aire de végétation apparemment uniforme présente néanmoins une très grande hétérogénéité spatio-temporelle, et un large éventail de sous-habitats. Les habitats aquatiques de nombreux genres différents sont particulièrement bien représentés dans la zone boréale. La diversité des habitats terrestres est entretenue surtout par les perturbations du milieu naturel, en particulier les incendies et les inondations saisonnières, et contribue grandement à la diversité de la faune.

On estime qu’environ 22 000 espèces d’insectes se retrouvent dans la zone, soit beaucoup moins que dans les zones plus méridionales. Les taxons du Nord, notamment les diptères, sont relativement bien représentés. Les distributions et les types de variation des espèces sont décrits sommairement. Environ la moitié de celles-ci se retrouvent d’un bout à l’autre du continent, et un grand nombre vivent aussi dans les habitats boisés des montagnes de l’Ouest, au sud de la zone boréale. A peu près 8% semblent être holarctiques. Toutefois, peu d’espèces de la zone boréale sont strictement confinées dans celle-ci. Les espèces non spécialisées des eaux douces et d’autres habitats étendus se remarquent aisément. De nombreuses espèces sont concentrées plus au sud et pénètrent, à divers degrés, dans la zone boréale.

On a signalé des cas d’adaptation aux conditions du Nord chez de nombreux insectes boréaux. Par exemple, la courte saison de croissance se reflète dans la prédominance des espèces univoltines. Les insectes survivent aux rigueurs des longs hivers grâce à leur résistance au froid et à leurs dormances. Les espèces dont l’habitat est perturbé se dispersent sur de grandes étendues. La faible diversité des ressources est confirmée par le fait que certains groupes d’herbivores ont une alimentation plus variée que leurs parents du Sud.

Les relations à l’intérieur de l’écosystème boréal sont complexes, en particulier relatives à l’Arctique. On a montré de nombreuses associations entre insectes, de même qu’entre insectes et autres organismes. Toutefois, certaines observations laissent croire que la structure des communautés biotiques dans le Nord pourrait dépendre plus des tolérances des espèces individuelles que des interactions entre espèces.

Les auteurs abordent la dynamique des populations d’insectes des forêts boréales, en particulier la tordeuse des bourgeons de l’épinette. Étant donné la complexité spatiotemporelle de la zone boréale, la diversité des interactions avec des facteurs abiotiques et biotiques, ainsi que la prédominance de données qui attestent, plutôt qu’elles n’expliquent, les modifications des populations, il n’est pas surprenant qu’à l’heure actuelle nous soyons incapables de comprendre la prolifération soudaine de certains insectes boréaux, car de nombreux facteurs se combinent sans doute pour déterminer la population d’une espèce donnée à une époque et en un lieu donnés.

En ce qui concerne la plupart des aspects de la composition et de la biologie de la faune boréale, l’information est incomplète. Les données sur les espèces boréales ont été recueillies surtout dans les écosystèmes transitoires du Sud voisins des zones boréales, plutôt que dans les systèmes boréaux proprement dits. L’information taxinomique de base sur plusieurs taxons importants est particulièrement limitée, de même que l’information taxinomique et morphométrique détaillée concernant les espèces individuelles. Toutefois, des études substantielles et coordonnées sur les faunes boréales offriront des renseignements de grand intérêt et très précieux. Certaines approches utiles pour des recherches ultérieures dans les domaines de la taxinomie et de l’écologie sont proposées.

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References

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