Warming alters herbivore control of plant life history New paper in Ecology

Insect herbivores play an important role in plant populations. The can determine population size by consuming and killing plants. They determine plant fitness, either by consuming seeds, reducing photosynthesis rates by consuming leaves, or by forcing plants to invest limited resources into defensive chemistry rather than seed production.

Warming, caused by climate change, affects both plants and herbivores. Rising temperatures increase plant growth rates, affect the production of plant defensive chemicals, and can also affect plant seed production. On top of that, warming often increases herbivore metabolic rates, causing herbivores to increase their consumption of plant material. Such increased consumption rates may strengthen the effect of herbivores on plants, but the direct effects of warming on plants (i.e. higher growth rates), could offset the increased herbivore damage. My co-authors and I just published a new paper in the journal Ecology, titled “Responses of plant phenology, growth, defense, and reproduction to interactive effects of warming and insect herbivory“, that examines whether rising temperatures might disrupt the ability of insects to influence plant life history.

What we found surprised us. At normal temperatures, plants were able to compensate for herbivory.  Sure, plants exposed to insects were shorter and produced fewer fruits, but each fruit was packed with more seeds. As a result, total seed biomass was unaffected by insects (although seeds were smaller).

Warming changed all that.  Plants were shorter and they produced more fruits. However, fruits were smaller, and packed with many small seeds. It was quite astonishing, however, because herbivores no longer had any effect. Despite high leaf damage, plant life history was unaffected by the presence of herbivores.

Why would this happen, why would warming negate any influence of insects on plants? We don’t know for sure, but we suspect that warming reduced soil moisture (a common effect of rising temperatures). Low soil water content appears to have induced a stress response, causing stunted growth in the plants and altering their life history strategy. Interestingly, the stress response to low soil moisture appears to have superseded any effect of herbivores.

Herbivores play an incredibly important role in plant ecology; they drive plant population dynamics and evolution. Our results suggest that climate warming might drastically alter the role of insects in plant communities.

Undergraduate Research Paper – Phosphorus and Grasshoppers

I’d like to congratulate my REU from last summer, Maddi Rode, whose paper “Prospective evidence for independent nitrogen and phosphorus limitation of grasshopper (Chorthippus curtipennis) growth in a tallgrass prairie” was just published in PLOS One

 Nitrogen, a critical component of amino acids and proteins, has long been considered the primary limiting nutrient of terrestrial insects. Other nutrients have generally received much less attentions. However, phosphorus is a crucial component of larval growth, given the tight coupling between phosphorus-rich RNA and growth rates. Indeed, the strength of phosphorus limitation in terrestrial insects is often just as strong as nitrogen limitation. However, few studies have enriched plants with both nitrogen and phosphorus (separately and together) to determine the relative strengths of nutrient limitation.

Maddi spent the summer at Konza Prairie Biological Station doing just that. She enriched plots of Andropogon gerardii, or big bluestem, with nitrogen, phosphorus, or a combination of the two. We then tracked the growth of the marsh meadow grasshopper, Chorthippus curtipennis, under all conditions.

Chorthippus curtipennis. http://bugguide.net/node/view/699668

She found that nitrogen enrichment led to higher grasshopper growth rates. Surprisingly (or unsurprisingly to us), phosphorus enrichment stimulated grasshopper growth by nearly the exact same amount as nitrogen enrichment. 

This work adds to the building body of literature that grasshoppers, and indeed most terrestrial insects, are limited by a suite of nutrients beyond simply phosphorus. What this means for herbivore feeding behavior and climate change remains to be seen…

Atala Season!

Over the past few weeks, Blue Atala caterpillars have been out in force. A single coontie plant in the park by my house could have 15 – 20 caterpillars. A week ago, the caterpillars all formed their chrysalids, so the coontie plants look like Christmas trees, evergreen shrubs with little red ornaments.

Atala chrysalids hanging from a coontie plant.
Atala chrysalids hanging from a coontie plant.

I can’t wait for the next week or so, when the park will be swarming with Atala butterflies.

Caterpillar Food 101

By Dejeanne Doublet, intern Conducting research with insects means that you must take on the roles and duties of a caretaker.

This summer we worked with the caterpillar species Spodoptera exigua (beet armyworms) and their close relative Spodoptera frugiperda (fall armyworms). Both species were shipped to us in sheets of eggs containing roughly 1,000 caterpillars. Most caterpillars start out their lives as eggs on leaves. They usually don’t get to pick and choose their food at the beginning of their lives, and are usually forced to eat from the plant or tree where they hatched.

Some caterpillars will enter a wandering stage once they’re big enough. They may wander about from plant to plant, picking and choosing what they like best or they may stay put at one type of plant for the rest of their life.

  • The first step involves mixing the agar into boiling water until it is completely dissolved. Then, the temperature should to reduced to 85 degrees before adding in the remaining ingredients.

When you’re a caterpillar shipped to a lab with 999 other caterpillars, though, you don’t necessarily get to have an all-you-can-buffet of cuisines. Our lab doesn’t quite function like a Subway and you can’t always have it your way. However, we do make sure you’re eating all your nutrients and vitamins with a homemade concoction of Lepidoptera food.

The recipe consists of more than a dozen ingredients that are simply mixed into boiling water. Click here for the full recipe. Once the ingredients are mixed together, they form a thick substance that cools down to form a tapioca pudding-like concoction.

We poured the finished food goo into 8 oz. plastic containers, allowed it to cool, then placed small pieces of the sheets containing caterpillars eggs on top of the food. We then placed the containers in a 30 ºC chamber under lights that mimic a 16-hour day and 8-hour night cycle. The caterpillars usually begin to hatch a day from when they arrive as eggs. Within a few days, they’re growing and eating and growing and eating.

Spodoptera exigua at about a week old
Spodoptera exigua at about 10 days old. Photos by D. Doublet

 

Good year for finding monarchs

Monarch caterpillars are not easy to come by. In the last five summers I’ve spent at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Maryland, I’ve only come across several caterpillars per season. This year, our lab is full of monarch caterpillars with a count currently up to 13 caterpillars, three of which are forming their chrysalis shells and undergoing metamorphosis. 

With the use of a microscope, we can photograph monarch caterpillars up close and personal. The monarch caterpillar (Danaus plexippus) in these photos was one of the first caterpillars we caught this season and is now being raised in our lab at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, MD. Photo by Dejeanne Doublet
With the use of a microscope, we can photograph monarch caterpillars up close and personal. The monarch caterpillar (Danaus plexippus) in these photos was one of the first caterpillars we caught this season and is now being raised in our lab at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, MD. Photo by Dejeanne Doublet

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cheap and Effective Homemade Insect Clip Cages

Spent an afternoon putting these clip cages together.

I’ve been working with caterpillars, and I needed to find a way to keep the caterpillars on the leaf for a few days so I can come back and get them later. Clip cages are great for this. Bio-Quip sells them, but they are small (1″ inner diameter) and expensive ($40 for a pack of 10). Here’s a step-by-step guide of how to make your own clip cages. These cages are great for hobbyists wanting to rear insects, teachers who want to raise insects in a classroom, or researchers who need a way to do experiments (cheaply) with bigger insects.

1. Purchase the appropriate foam tube and supplies

Trampoline padding
Trampoline pole padding I bought online.

I used both trampoline pole padding (1.5″ inner diameter) and pool “super-noodles” (2″ inner diameter). Either one works well, is cheap ($3 – $5), and light (no more petri dishes that overload the leaf and cause sagging). A single tube can get about 15 full cages. Other than the tube, you only need window screening (cheap at home depot), contact cement ($4 per bottle), and long staples ($3 – $5 for 100). I like Powershot cable staples because they are wider than normal staples, but you need to pull the plastic end off to make them useable.

2. Chop up the tube

DSC_8340
Lots of little tube slices.

The tube should be cut into 2″ wide slices. You can use scissors, a razor blade, Exacto knife, or anything else. I used a chop saw to slice through six tubes in a matter of minutes. Also, the chop saw gave me a nice clean, straight cut. A band saw would work even better than a chop saw.

3. Glue the slices onto window screening

You can do this however you like. My preferred way is to lay the window screen on a table, coat one side of the foam slice with contact cement, and simply lay the slice onto the screen. Wait a few minutes for the cement to dry. This works incredibly well if you’re mass producing hundreds of clip cages like I was. Make sure you do this in a well-ventilated area. You’ll want to give the glue several days to dry and air out all of the fumes before putting insects inside.

Self-explanatoriness
Self-explanatoriness

4. Cut the foam slices out of the window screen

This is pretty self-explanatory.

5. Use staples to connect two slices

I use three staples per clip cage. Put the two halves together (window screen facing out on both sides), and use the staples to fasten them together.

6. Place on plant with insect. Enjoy

Here is the final product in action. Each cage should cost about a dollar, if that.

You'll have 15 of these things. Go nuts.
You’ll have 15 of these things. Go nuts.