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Open Access Open Badges Research article

Delayed colonisation of Acacia by thrips and the timing of host-conservatism and behavioural specialisation

Michael J McLeish1*, Joseph T Miller2 and Laurence A Mound3

Author Affiliations

1 Plant Geography Laboratory, Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Gardens, Chinese Academy and Sciences, Menglun, Mengla, Yunnan Province 666303, China

2 Centre for Australian National Biodiversity Research, CSIRO Plant Industry, GPO Box 1600, Canberra, ACT 2601, Australia

3 CSIRO Ecosystems Sciences, GPO Box 1700, Canberra, ACT 2601, Australia

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2013, 13:188  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-13-188

Published: 9 September 2013



Repeated colonisation of novel host-plants is believed to be an essential component of the evolutionary success of phytophagous insects. The relative timing between the origin of an insect lineage and the plant clade they eat or reproduce on is important for understanding how host-range expansion can lead to resource specialisation and speciation. Path and stepping-stone sampling are used in a Bayesian approach to test divergence timing between the origin of Acacia and colonisation by thrips. The evolution of host-plant conservatism and ecological specialisation is discussed.


Results indicated very strong support for a model describing the origin of the common ancestor of Acacia thrips subsequent to that of Acacia. A current estimate puts the origin of Acacia at approximately 6 million years before the common ancestor of Acacia thrips, and 15 million years before the origin of a gall-inducing clade. The evolution of host conservatism and resource specialisation resulted in a phylogenetically under-dispersed pattern of host-use by several thrips lineages.


Thrips colonised a diversity of Acacia species over a protracted period as Australia experienced aridification. Host conservatism evolved on phenotypically and environmentally suitable host lineages. Ecological specialisation resulted from habitat selection and selection on thrips behavior that promoted primary and secondary host associations. These findings suggest that delayed and repeated colonisation is characterised by cycles of oligo- or poly-phagy. This results in a cumulation of lineages that each evolve host conservatism on different and potentially transient host-related traits, and facilitates both ecological and resource specialisation.