Plants tell caterpillars when it's safe to forage

The world is filled with cues that could influence the daily feeding patterns of an organism. Many plants, for example, respond to foraging damage by releasing specialized chemical signals - volatile organic compounds that evaporate in the air - that attract the forager's natural enemies. This strategy is obviously no use against a cow, but proves effective when the offender is a caterpillar and the summoned predator is a wasp. Just how much control such biotic factors exert over a forager's daily routine has remained an open question. But in a new study in the open access journal PLoS Biology, Kaori Shiojiri, Rika Ozawa, and Junji Takabayashi show that plant signals can indeed regulate herbivore behavior.

When the larvae of beet armyworms (Spodoptera exigua) feed on corn, the plant releases volatile compounds that act as a magnet for parasitic wasps (Cotesia marginiventris), which deposit their eggs in the larvae. Production of volatile chemicals increases during the day (when wasps are active) and decreases at night, suggesting that variations in production might affect the daily activity patterns of foraging larvae, with low production sending the signal that the coast is clear. To test this hypothesis, Shiojiri et al. exposed larvae of a corn-munching nocturnal caterpillar, Mythimna separata, to volatile compounds from corn and varied the light and dark conditions for both corn and insect. Corn infested with M. separata releases volatiles that attract parasitic wasps (C. kariyai).

The researchers separated the effects of photoperiod from that of host plant volatiles to tease out their relative contributions to caterpillar behavior. First, they tested the effects of light. If larvae are diurnal, they should hide in "shelters" fashioned out of filter paper attached to the plastic cups they were kept in. When larvae were fed an artificial diet, however, different light conditions produced no changes in their hiding

Contact: Paul Ocampo
Public Library of Science

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