The Effects of Milkweed Induced Defense on Parasite Resistance in Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus.


Many plants express induced defenses against herbivores through increasing the production of toxic secondary chemicals following damage. Phytochemical induction can directly or indirectly affect other organisms within the community. In tri-trophic systems, increased concentrations of plant toxins could be detrimental to plants if herbivores can sequester these toxins as protective chemicals for themselves. Thus, through trophic interactions, induction can lead to either positive or negative effects on plant fitness. We examined the effects of milkweed (Asclepias spp.) induced defenses on the resistance of monarch caterpillars (Danaus plexippus) to a protozoan parasite (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha). Milkweeds contain toxic secondary chemicals called cardenolides, higher concentrations of which are associated with reduced parasite growth. Previous work showed that declines in foliar cardenolides caused by aphid attack render monarch caterpillars more susceptible to infection. Here, we ask whether cardenolide induction by monarchs increases monarch resistance to disease. We subjected the high-cardenolide milkweed A. curassavica and the low-cardenolide A. syriaca to caterpillar grazing, and reared infected and uninfected caterpillars on these plants. As expected, monarchs suffered less parasite growth and disease when reared on A. curassavica than on A. syriaca. We also found that herbivory increased cardenolide concentrations in A. curassavica, but not A. syriaca. However, cardenolide induction in A. curassavica was insufficient to influence monarch resistance to the parasite. Our results suggest that interspecific variation in cardenolide concentration is a more important driver of parasite defense than plasticity via induced defenses in this tri-trophic system.

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