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Scientists find insects can alter plant chemistry to help them find mates

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Each spring, amid the decaying rubble of dead prairie plants, emerging male gall wasps find mates by calling upon the chemistry prowess of their predecessors, entomologists scouring Central Illinois have discovered.

In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they report that as adult gall wasps (Antistrophus rufus) feed in warm weather, they change the ratio of plant chemicals so that males emerging after the winter season can recognize when they are on the right stems at the right time. The study is being published in advance online the week of Nov. 18-22.

The finding is the first to suggest that insects can alter the chemical composition of plants for the purpose of mate location, said Lawrence M. Hanks, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The study also provides new insight on plant-insect ecology in widely diverse prairie habitats, which in Illinois have dwindled because of agriculture and urban growth to less than 1 percent of the acreage they once covered.

"Prairies hold unique plants and insects that are not thoroughly understood," Hanks said. "This study is important because it shows that insects can influence plants for their own needs, using a substitute for sex pheromones."

Specifically, the researchers found that male gall wasps respond to uneven chemical ratios in the plants. "As the insects feed, they change the plant chemistry, providing cues that help male wasps find females," Hanks said. "This is interesting, because the females are inside the stems, so they are not producing pheromones. It's a plant's volatile chemicals that attract males."

In essence, males smell their way to a mate. "They get chemical cues off the surface of the plant," said co-author John F. Tooker, a doctoral student in entomology at Illinois. "It's called a short-range volatile cue."

"We don't know how far away they can be and still smell it," Tooker said,
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Contact: Jim Barlow
b-james3@uiuc.edu
217-333-5802
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
18-Nov-2002


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