Lollipops with side effects

A plant’s sugary offering betrays caterpillars to predatory ants

April 26, 2011

Trichomes, hair-like projections on leaves, are part of a plant’s defense against herbivores: they can be obstacles, traps, or reservoirs for toxic substances. The hairs of wild tobacco Nicotiana attenuata contain primarily acyl sugars, which are composed of the common sugar, sucrose, bound to branched chain aliphatic acids, compounds that give baby vomit its distinctive odor. Tiny, freshly hatched caterpillars consume these sweet secretions.  However, consuming the sugary exudations from the plant hairs has unwanted side effects for the insects: the caterpillars develop a distinctive body odor, and so does their frass (the term entomologists use for “caterpillar poop”). The Max Planck researchers discovered that ants recognize the caterpillar’s body odor and use the aliphatic acids excreted by the caterpillars after ingestion of acyl sugars to locate their prey. These predatory ants locate the tiny larvae on the plants and carry them back to their nests to feed their young and co-workers. Thus plants use acyl sugars not only as sticky traps against aphids, leaf fleas or spider mites; they can also skillfully utilize them to tag voracious caterpillars with a distinctive smell which makes them easy prey to locate.

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Striking features of animals can be fateful, because they may betray them to their enemies. Colorful feathers or incautious courtship behavior are examples of such attributes, as are involuntary body odors emitted by the organism itself or its excretions. Larvae of the silver-spotted skipper, Epargyreus clarus, are punctilious about removing feces from their shelter, so that predators won’t find them due to their telltale odors. Some plant species, on the other hand, take advantage of the predators’ preferences when they produce their compelling “green leaf volatiles” to protect themselves indirectly against herbivores. In a recent study, Ian Baldwin, head of the Department of Molecular Ecology at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany, and his colleagues showed that Manduca sexta larvae have a substance in their oral secretions that catalyzes the transformation of green leaf volatiles into dangerous attractants – with fatal consequences for the caterpillars. The attractant called (E)-2-hexenal lures predatory bugs that feed on Manduca sexta larvae and eggs. (see Press Release “Lethal Backfire: Green Odor with Fatal Consequences for Voracious Caterpillars”)

 

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