Journal of Chemical Ecology

, Volume 8, Issue 3, pp 579–633

Plant-determined variation in the cardenolide content, thin-layer chromatography profiles, and emetic potency of monarch butterflies,Danaus plexippus reared on the milkweed,Asclepias eriocarpa in California


  • L. P. Brower
    • Department of ZoologyUniversity of Florida
  • J. N. Seiber
    • Department of Environmental ToxicologyUniversity of California
  • C. J. Nelson
    • Department of Environmental ToxicologyUniversity of California
  • S. P. Lynch
    • Department of Biological SciencesLouisiana State University
  • P. M. Tuskes
    • Department of Environmental ToxicologyUniversity of California

DOI: 10.1007/BF00989631

Cite this article as:
Brower, L.P., Seiber, J.N., Nelson, C.J. et al. J Chem Ecol (1982) 8: 579. doi:10.1007/BF00989631


This paper is the first in a series on cardenolide fingerprinting of the monarch butterfly. New methodologies are presented which allow both qualitative and quantitative descriptions of the constituent cardenolides which these insects derive in the wild from specificAsclepias foodplants. Analyses of thin-layer Chromatographic profiles ofAsclepias eriocarpa cardenolides in 85 individual plant-butterfly pairs collected at six widely separate localities in California indicate a relatively invariant pattern of 16–20 distinct cardenolides which we here define as theAsclepias eriocarpa cardenolide fingerprint profile. Cardenolide concentrations vary widely in the plant samples, but monarchs appear able to regulate total storage by increasing their concentrations relative to their larval host plant when reared on plants containing low concentrations, and vice versa. Forced-feeding of blue jays with powdered butterfly and plant material and with one of the constituent plant cardenolides, labriformin, established that theA. eriocarpa cardenolides are extremely emetic, and that monarchs which have fed on this plant contain an average of 16 emetic-dose fifty (ED50) units. The relatively nonpolar labriformin and labriformidin in the plant are not stored by the monarch but are metabolized in vivo to desglucosyrioside which the butterfly does store. This is chemically analogous to the way in which monarchs and grasshoppers metabolize another series of milkweed cardenolides, those found inA. curassavica. It appears that the sugar moiety through functionality at C-3′ determines which cardenolides are metabolized and which are stored. The monarch also appears able to store several lowRf cardenolides fromA. eriocarpa without altering them. Differences in the sequestering process in monarchs and milkweed bugs (Oncopeltus) may be less than emphasized in the literature. The monarch is seen as a central organism involved in a coevolutionary triad simultaneously affecting and affected by both its avian predators and the secondary chemistry of the milkweeds with which it is intimately involved.

Key words

Danaus plexippusDanaidaemonarch butterfliesAsclepias eriocarpaAsclepiadaceaemilkweedscoevolutionthin-layer chromatographyglycosidescardenolidescardenolide fingerprintschemical defensechemical ecologylabriforminlabriformidindesglucosyriosideemesisecological chemistryplant-insect interactions

Copyright information

© Plenum Publishing Corporation 1982