Shelter building caterpillars act as ecosystem engineers by creating and maintaining leaf shelters, which are then colonized by other arthropods. Foliage quality has been shown to influence initial colonization by shelter-building caterpillars. However, the effects of plant quality on the interactions between ecosystem engineers and their communities have yet to be studied at the whole plant level. We examined how leaf tying caterpillars, as ecosystem engineers, impact arthropod communities on Quercus alba (white oak), and the modifying effect of foliage quality on these interactions. We removed all leaf tying caterpillars and leaf ties on 35 Q. alba saplings during the season when leaf tying caterpillars were active (June–September), and compared these leaf tie removal trees to 35 control trees whose leaf ties were left intact. Removal of these ecosystem engineers had no impact on overall arthropod species richness, but reduced species diversity, and overall arthropod abundance and that of most guilds, and changed the structure of the arthropod community as the season progressed. There was an increase in plant-level species richness with increasing number of leaf ties, consistent with Habitat Diversity Hypothesis. In turn, total arthropod density, and that of both leaf tying caterpillars and free-feeding caterpillars were affected by foliar tannin and nitrogen concentrations, and leaf water content. The engineering effect was greatest on low quality plants, consistent with the Stress-Gradient Hypothesis. Our results demonstrate that interactions between ecosystem engineering and plant quality together determine community structure of arthropods on Q. alba in Missouri.

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