, Volume 45, Issue 3, pp 284-295

Evolutionary and ecological implications of cardenolide sequestration in the monarch butterfly

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Summary

Monarch butterflies sequester cardenolides from their larval host plants in the milkweed genusAsclepias for use in defense against predation. Of 108Asclepias species in North America, monarchs are known to feed as larvae on 27. Research on 11 of these has shown that monarchs sequester cardenolides most effectively, to an asymptote of approximately 350 μg/0.1 g dry butterfly, from plants with intermediate cardenolide contents rather than from those with very high or very low cardenolide contents. SinceAsclepias host plant species are distributed widely in space and time across the continent, monarchs exploit them by migration between breeding and overwintering areas. After overwintering in central Mexico, spring migrants east of the Rocky Mountains exploit three predominantAsclepias species in the southern USA that have moderately high cardenolide contents. Monarchs sequester cardenolides very effectively from these species. First generation butterflies are thus well protected against predators and continue the migration north. Across the northern USA and southern Canada most summer breeding occurs on a fourthAsclepias species and in autumn most of these monarchs migrate back to Mexican overwintering sites. The ecological implications of this cycle of cardenolide sequestration for the evolution of monarch migration are discussed.