Article

Journal of Chemical Ecology

, Volume 14, Issue 1, pp 295-318

First online:

Cardenolide content and thin-layer chromatography profiles of monarch butterflies,Danaus plexippus L., and their larval host-plant milkweed,Asclepias asperula subsp.Capricornu (woods.) woods., in north central Texas

  • Ronald A. MartinAffiliated withDepartment of Chemistry, Louisiana State University
  • , Steven P. LynchAffiliated withDepartment of Biological Sciences, Louisiana State University

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Abstract

This paper is the second in a series on cardenolide fingerprinting of monarch butterflies and their host-plant milkweeds in the eastern United States. Spectrophotometric determinations of the gross cardenolide content ofAsclepias asperula plants in north central Texas indicated wide variation ranging from 341 to 1616 μg/0.1 g dry weight. The mean plant cardenolide concentration (886 μg/0.1 g) is the highest for any milkweed species on which monarch cardenolide profiles have been produced. Forty-one butterflies reared individually on these plants contained a skewed distribution of cardenolide concentrations ranging from 231 to 515 μg/0. 1 g dry weight with a mean of 363μg/0.1 g. The uptake of cardenolide by the butterflies was independent of plant concentration, suggesting that saturation occurs in cardenolide sequestration by monarchs when feeding on cardenolide-rich host-plants. Female monarchs contained significantly greater mean cardenolide concentrations (339 μg/0.1 g) than did males (320 μg/0.1 g). The mean dry weight of the male butterflies (0.211 g) was significantly greater than the female mean (0.191) so that the mean total cardenolide contents of males (675 fig) and females (754 μg) were not significantly different. Butterfly size was not significantly correlated to butterfly cardenolide concentration when differences due to sex and individual host-plant concentration were removed. Thin-layer chrornatograms of 24 individual plant-butterfly pairs developed in two solvent systems resolved 22 individual spots in the plants and 15 in the butterflies.A. asperula plants appear to contain several relatively nonpolar cardenolides of the calotropagenin series which are metabolized to more polar derivatives in the butterflies. Quantitative evaluation of theR f values, spot intensities, and probabilities of occurrence in the chloroform-methanol-formamide TLC system produced a cardenolide fingerprint clearly distinct from those previously established for monarchs reared on otherAsclepias species. Our data support the use of fingerprints to make ecological predictions concerning larval host-plant utilization.A. asperula subsp.capricornu andA. viridis Walt, are the predominant early spring milkweeds throughout most of the south central United States. Cardenolide-rich monarchs reared on these two species may be instrumental in establishing and reinforcing visual avoidance of adults by naive predators throughout their spring and summer breeding cycle in eastern North America.

Key words

Asclepias asperula milkweed Asclepiadaceae Danaus plexippus monarch butterfly Lepidoptera Danaidae Oncopeltus Hemiptera Lygaeidae cardenolide cardiac glycoside digitoxin chemical ecology chemotaxonomy chemical defense ecological chemistry thin-layer chromatography plant-insect interactions coevolution