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Caterpillars on a phytochemical landscape: the case of alfalfa and the Melissa blue butterfly


Forister, Matthew et al. (2020), Caterpillars on a phytochemical landscape: the case of alfalfa and the Melissa blue butterfly, Dryad, Dataset,


Modern metabolomic approaches that generate more comprehensive phytochemical profiles than were previously available are providing new opportunities for understanding plant-animal interactions. Specifically, we can characterize the phytochemical landscape by asking how a larger number of individual compounds affect herbivores and how compounds covary among plants. Here we use the recent colonization of alfalfa (Medicago sativa) by the Melissa blue butterfly (Lycaeides melissa) to quantify plant metabolites and the performance of caterpillars as affected by both individual compounds and suites of covarying phytochemicals. We find that survival, development time and adult weight are all associated with variation in nutrition and toxicity, including biomolecules associated with plant cell function as well as putative anti-herbivore action. The plant-insect interface is complex, with clusters of covarying compounds in many cases encompassing divergent effects on different aspects of caterpillar performance. Individual compounds with the strongest associations are largely specialized metabolites, including alkaloids, phenolic glycosides and saponins. The saponins are represented in our data by more than 25 individual compounds with beneficial and detrimental effects on L. melissa caterpillars, which highlights the value of metabolomic data as opposed to approaches that rely on total concentrations within broad defensive classes.


National Science Foundation, Award: DEB-1638602,DEB-1638768,DEB-1638773,DEB-1638793,DEB-1638922