The body size of an animal is probably its most important functional trait. For arthropods, environmental drivers of body size variation are still poorly documented and understood, especially in tropical regions. We use a unique dataset for two species‐rich, phylogenetically independent moth taxa (Lepidoptera: Geometridae; Arctiinae), collected along an extensive tropical elevational gradient in Costa Rica, to investigate the correlates and possible causes of body‐size variation. We studied 15 047 specimens (794 species) of Geometridae and 4167 specimens (308 species) of Arctiinae to test the following hypotheses: 1) body size increases with decreasing ambient temperature, as predicted by the temperature–size rule; 2) body size increases with increasing rainfall and primary productivity, as predicted from considerations of starvation resistance; and 3) body size scales allometrically with wing area, as elevation increases, such that wing loading (the ratio of body size to wing area) decreases with increasing elevation to compensate for lower air density.
To test these hypotheses, we examined forewing length as a proxy for body size in relation to ambient temperature, rainfall, vegetation index and elevation as explanatory variables in linear and polynomial spatial regression models. We analysed our data separately for males and females using two principal approaches: mean forewing length of species at each site, and mean forewing length of complete local assemblages, weighted by abundance.
Body size consistently increased with elevation in both taxa, both approaches, both sexes, and also within species. Temperature was the best predictor for this pattern (–0.98 < r < –0.74), whereas body size was uncorrelated or weakly correlated with rainfall and enhanced vegetation index. Wing loading increased with elevation. Our results support the temperature–size rule as an important mechanism for body size variation in arthropods along tropical elevational gradients, whereas starvation resistance and optimization of flight mechanics seem to be of minor importance.