, Volume 23, Issue 1, pp 59–70 | Cite as

Physiological benefits of feeding in the spring by Lymantria dispar caterpillars on red oak and sugar maple leaves: nutrition versus oxidative stress

  • Raymond V. Barbehenn
  • Julie Niewiadomski
  • Cristina Pecci
  • Juha-Pekka Salminen
Research Paper


The rapid growth of insects that feed on tree leaves in the spring is believed to be due to high nutritional quality. This study tested the hypothesis that both high nutritional quality and low levels of oxidative stress (i.e., toxicological effects) benefit caterpillars that feed in the spring. Fourth-instar larvae of Lymantria dispar (Lepidoptera: Lymantriidae) were used to bioassay the leaves of two contrasting host plants in the spring and summer: red oak (Quercus rubra), a high-quality host, and sugar maple (Acer saccharum), a low-quality host. On spring foliage, the combined effects of rapid consumption rate, efficient nutrient assimilation, and high nutritional quality allowed larvae to grow rapidly and attain larger body mass. Ellagitannins, a major source of oxidative stress in the midgut, were at higher concentrations in the spring than in the summer in maple leaves, but were at negligible levels throughout the growing season in oak. Thus, the impact of phenolic defenses (measured as semiquinone free radicals and oxidized glutathione in the midgut) was not decreased in spring-feeding larvae. Instead, oxidative stress in larvae on maple remained at elevated levels in the spring and summer. By contrast, larvae that fed on oak had consistently low levels of oxidative stress. We conclude that oak and maple were better host plants in the spring because of their higher nutritional quality, and not because of a lower effectiveness of their chemical defenses. This work emphasizes the need to measure not only foliar nutritional and phenolic chemistry but also specific physiological responses in the herbivore, such as oxidative stress. These physiological mechanisms add to our understanding of why spring-feeding life-history strategies have evolved in some insect herbivores.


Herbivore Nutrition Leaf quality Tannins Protein Seasonal change 



We thank Anne Koivuniemi for conducting the polyphenol analyses, Christine Lokerson (United States Department of Agriculture) for L. dispar eggs, Ken Guire for statistical consultation, Michael Martin for the purified tobacco leaf protein, and Chris Holt for research assistance. The University of Turku Strategic Research Grant (Ecological Interactions) supported the purchase of the UPLC-MS system. This project was supported by the National Research Initiative of the USDA Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service, grant numbers 2004-35302-14840 and 20037-35302-17803.


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Copyright information

© Springer Basel 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Raymond V. Barbehenn
    • 1
    • 2
  • Julie Niewiadomski
    • 1
    • 2
  • Cristina Pecci
    • 1
    • 2
  • Juha-Pekka Salminen
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental BiologyUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA
  2. 2.Department of Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA
  3. 3.Department of Chemistry, Laboratory of Organic Chemistry and Chemical BiologyUniversity of TurkuTurkuFinland

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