Environmental Studies Faculty and Staff Publications

Document Type


Publication Date



Insect outbreaks, Spatial patterns


Insect outbreaks often occur synchronously across large spatial scales, but the long-term temporal stability of the phenomenon and the mechanisms behind it are not well understood. In this study, I use a widespread lepidopteran defoliator native to western North America--the western spruce budworm--as a case study to explore patterns of and potential causes for synchronous population fluctuations. Analyses of synchrony are typically severely limited by the short historical records available for many species. To overcome this limitation, I compiled multi-century dendrochronological reconstructions of western spruce budworm outbreaks from across much of the species' range. This allowed me to analyze synchrony at a sub-continental spatial scale over the last three centuries. I found statistically significant synchrony among regional outbreak records up to 2,000 km apart and identified numerous outbreak periods that occurred synchronously across much of the species' range. I quantified spatial and temporal associations between climate and synchronous outbreak periods using paleoclimate reconstructions. The spatial patterns of outbreak histories and climate records were remarkably similar, with higher similarity in outbreak histories apparent between regions with more similar climate conditions. Synchronous outbreaks typically occurred during periods of average or above average moisture availability preceded by periods of low moisture availability. My results suggest that climatic variability has played a key role in synchronizing western spruce budworm population fluctuations in disjunct forests across western North America for at least the last three centuries. Widespread synchrony appears to be a natural part of this species' population dynamics, though synchronous outbreaks have occurred more frequently during the 20th century than during prior centuries. This study uses a novel combination of statistical methods and dendrochronological data to provide analyses of this species' population dynamics with an unprecedented combination of spatial extent and temporal depth.

Publication Title






First Page


Required Publisher's Statement

Publisher required citation: Flower A (2016) Three Centuries of Synchronous Forest Defoliator Outbreaks in Western North America. PLoS ONE 11(10): e0164737. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0164737

Subjects - Topical (LCSH)

Western spruce budworm--West (U.S.); Western spruce budworm--British Columbia; Douglas fir--Diseases and pests--West (U.S.); Douglas fir--Diseases and pests--British Columbia; Dendrochronology--West (U.S.); Dendrochronology--British Columbia; Spatial ecology

Geographic Coverage

West (U.S.); British Columbia





Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.