Journal of Chemical Ecology

, Volume 10, Issue 4, pp 601–639 | Cite as

Plant-determined variation in the cardenolide content, thin-layer chromatography profiles, and emetic potency of monarch butterflies,Danaus plexippus L. Reared on milkweed plants in California: 2.Asclepias speciosa

  • L. P. Brower
  • J. N. Seiber
  • C. J. Nelson
  • S. P. Lynch
  • M. M. Holland


The pattern of variation in gross cardenolide concentration of 111Asclepias speciosa plants collected in six different areas of California is a positively skewed distribution which ranges from 19 to 344 μg of cardenolide per 0.1 g dry weight with a mean of 90 μg per 0.1 g. Butterflies reared individually on these plants in their native habitats ranged from 41 to 547 μg of cardenolide per 0.1 g dry weight with a mean of 179 μg. Total cardenolide per butterfly ranged from 54 to 1279 μg with a mean of 319 μg. Differences in concentrations and total cardenolide contents in the butterflies from the six geographic areas appeared minor, and there were no differences between the males and the females, although the males did weigh significantly more than females. The uptake of cardenolide by the butterflies was found to be a logarithmic function of the plant concentration. This results in regulation: larvae which feed on low-concentration plants produce butterflies with increased cardenolide concentrations relative to those of the plants, and those which feed on high-concentration plants produce butterflies with decreased concentrations. No evidence was adduced that high concentrations of cardenolides in the plants affected the fitness of the butterflies. The mean emetic potencies of the powdered plant and butterfly material were 5.62 and 5.25 blue jay emetic dose fifty units per milligram of cardenolide and the number of ED50 units per butterfly ranged from 0.28 to 6.7 with a mean of 1.67. Monarchs reared onA. speciosa, on average, are only about one tenth as emetic as those reared onA. eriocarpa. UnlikeA. eriocarpa which is limited to California,A. speciosa ranges from California to the Great Plains and is replaced eastwards byA. syriaca L. These two latter milkweed species appear to have a similar array of chemically identical cardenolides, and therefore both must produce butterflies of relatively low emetic potency to birds, with important ecological implications. About 80% of the lower emetic potency of monarchs reared on A. speciosa compared to those reared onA. eriocarpa appears attributable to the higher polarity of the cardenolides inA. speciosa. Thin-layer Chromatographie separation of the cardenolides in two different solvent systems showed that there are 23 cardenolides in theA. speciosa plants of which 20 are stored by the butterflies. There were no differences in the cardenolide spot patterns due either to geographic origin or the sex of the butterflies. As when reared onA. eriocarpa, the butterflies did not store the plant cardenolides withR f values greater than digitoxigenin. However, metabolic transformation of the cardenolides by the larvae appeared minor in comparison to when they were reared onA. eriocarpa. AlthoughA. eriocarpa andA. speciosa contain similar numbers of cardenolides and both contain desglucosyrioside, the cardenolides ofA. speciosa overall are more polar. ThusA. speciosa has no or only small amounts of the nonpolar labriformin and labriformidin, whereas both occur in high concentrations inA. eriocarpa. A. speciosa plants and butterflies also contain uzarigen, syriogenin, and possibly other polar cardenolides withR f values lower than digitoxin. The cardenolide concentration in the leaves is not only considerably less than inA. eriocarpa, but the latex has little to immeasurable cardenolide, whereas that ofA. eriocarpa has very high concentrations of several cardenolides. Quantitative analysis ofR f values of the cardenolide spots, their intensities, and their probabilities of occurrence in the chloroform-methanol-formamide TLC system produced a cardenolide fingerprint pattern very different from that previously established for monarchs reared onA. eriocarpa. This dispels recently published skepticism about the predictibility of chemical fingerprints based upon ingested secondary plant chemicals.

Key words

Danaus plexippus Lepidoptera Danaidae monarch butterflies Asdepias speciosa Asclepiadaceae milkweeds ecological chemistry plant-insect interactions chemical ecology chemical defense coevolution thin-layer chromatography cardenolide fingerprints cardenolides cardiac glycosides desglucosyrioside labriformin labriformidin syriogenin uzarigenin emetic potency emesis 


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Copyright information

© Plenum Publishing Corporation 1984

Authors and Affiliations

  • L. P. Brower
    • 1
  • J. N. Seiber
    • 2
  • C. J. Nelson
    • 3
  • S. P. Lynch
    • 4
  • M. M. Holland
    • 5
  1. 1.Department of ZoologyUniverisly of FloridaGainesville
  2. 2.Department of Environmental ToxicologyUniversity of CaliforniaDavis
  3. 3.Department of PharmacyUniversity of SydneySydneyAustralia
  4. 4.Department of Biological SciencesLouisiana State UniversityShreveport
  5. 5.Department of BiologyCollege of New RochelleNew Rochelle

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