Journal of Insect Behavior

, Volume 28, Issue 5, pp 582–592 | Cite as

Larval Host Choice of the Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus L.) on Four Native California Desert Milkweed Species

  • G. F. Robertson
  • M. P. Zalucki
  • T. D. Paine


The monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus L. (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae), is found across North America during the summer months. Adult populations from western North America migrate to roost along the central coast of California. Monarchs that disperse in the spring to the arid regions of southern California encounter widely dispersed individuals of desert milkweed species, including Asclepias fascicularis Decne. (Narrow-Leaf Milkweed), A. californica E. Greene (California Milkweed), A. eriocarpa Benth. (Indian Milkweed), and A. erosa Torrey (Desert Milkweed). The four species represent a range in suitability as hosts for monarch larvae. In laboratory assays of plants grown from wild-collected seeds, neonate larvae showed the least preference for A. fascicularis in host-selection assays and there were no differences in preference among the other three species. Previous research has shown that A. fascicularis has the lowest level of cardiac glycosides and the lowest latex flow of the four species examined. The leaf hairs of A. californica and A. eriocarpa provide a significant barrier to neonate larval success; larvae feeding on shaved leaves were significantly larger than larvae feeding on leaves with intact hairs. First instar larval behavior of cutting hairs before beginning to feed may improve their success by modifying plant quality and defenses.


Monarch butterfly Danaus plexippus Asclepias fascicularis Asclepias californica Asclepias eriocarpa Asclepias erosa host plant selection plant defense 



We thank Christopher Hanlon for culturing the milkweed species and providing assistance in rearing the butterflies. We also thank M.E. Jones and R. Waterworth for careful review of the manuscript. The research was conducted to fulfill the requirements of a M.S. degree in Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology for GFR.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


  1. Abbas A, Luttrell RG, Pitre HN (1990) Feeding sites and distribution of fall armyworm (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae) larvae on cotton. Environ Entomol 19:1060–1067CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Agrawal AA, Konno K (2009) Latex: a model for understanding mechanisms, ecology, and evolution of plant defense against herbivory. Annu Rev Ecol Syst 40:311–331CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Agrawal AA, Fishbein M (2006) Plant defense syndromes. Ecology 87:S132–S149CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Agrawal AA, Hastings AP, Patrick ET, Knight AC (2014) Specificity of herbivore-induced hormonal signaling and defensive traits in five closely related milkweeds (Asclepias spp.). J Chem Ecol 40:717–729CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. Bernays EA, Chapman RF, Woodhead S (1983) Behavior of newly hatched larvae of Chilo partellus (Swinhoe) (Lepidoptera: Pyralidae) associated with their establishment in the host-plant, sorghum. Bull Entomol Res 73:75–83CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Biondini ME, Mielke PW Jr, Redente EF (1988) Permutation techniques based on Euclidean analysis spaces: a new and powerful statistical method for ecological research. Coenoses 3:155–174Google Scholar
  7. Brower LP (1961) Studies on the migration of the monarch butterfly. 1. Breeding populations of Danaus plexippus and D. berenice in south central Floirda. Ecology 43:549–552CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Brower LP (1977) Monarch migration. Nat Hist 86:41–53Google Scholar
  9. Brower LP (1995) Understanding and misunderstanding the migration of the monarch butterfly (Nymphalidae) in North America: 1857–1995. J Lepidopterol Soc 49:304–385Google Scholar
  10. Brower LP, Seiber JN, Nelson CJ, Lynch SP, Hoggard MP, Cohen LA (1984) Plant-determined variation in cardenolide content and thinlayer chromatography profiles of monarch butterflies, Danaus plexippus reared on milkweed plants in California. 3. Asclepias californica. J Chem Ecol 10:1823–1857CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  11. Cockfield SD, Mahr DL (1993) Consequences of feeding site selection on growth and survival of young blackheaded fireworm (Lepidoptera: Tortricidae). Environ Entomol 22:607–612CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Cohen J, Brower LP (1982) Oviposition and larval success of wild monarch butterflies (Lepidopdera: Danaidae) in relation to host plant size and cardenolide concentration. J Kans Entomol Soc 55:343–348Google Scholar
  13. De Roode JC, Lopez Fernandez de Castillejo C, Faits T, Alizon S (2011) Virulence evolution in response to anti-infection resistance: toxic food plants can select for virulent parasites of monarch butterflies. J Evol Biol 24:712–722CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  14. De Roode JC, Pederson AB, Hunter MD, Altizer S (2008) Host plant species affect virulence in monarch butterfly parasites. J Anim Ecol 77:120–126CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Dingle H, Zalucki MP, Rochester WA, Armijo-Prewitt T (2005) Distribution of the monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus L. (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae), in western North America. Biol J Linn Soc 85:491–500CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. DiTommaso A, Losey J (2003) Oviposition preference and larval performance of monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) on two invasive swallow-wort species. Entomol Exp Appl 108:205–209CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Dixon CA, Erikson JM, Kellet DN, Rothschild M (1978) Some adaptations between Danaus plexippus and its food plant with notes on Danaus chrysippus and Euploea core (Insecta: Lepidoptera). J Zool 185:437–467CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Dussourd DE, Denno RF (1991) Deactivation of plant defense: correspondence between insect behavior and secretory canal architecture. Ecology 72:1383–1396CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Dussourd DE, Eisner T (1987) Vein-cutting behavior: insect counterploy to the latex defense of plants. Science 237:898–901CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  20. Farrer RRJ, Bradley JRJ (1985) Effects of within-plant distribution of Heliothis zea (Boddie) (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae) eggs and lavae on larval development and survival on cotton. J Econ Entomol 78:1233–1237CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Foster SP, Howard AJ (1999) Adult female and neonate larval plant preferences of the generalist herbivore, Epiphyas postvittana. Entomol Exp Appl 92:53–62CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Gowler CD, Leon KE, Hunter MD, de Roode JC (2015) Secondary defense chemicals in milkweed reduce parasite infection in monarch butterflies, Danaus plexippus. J Chem Ecol 41:520–523CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. Haribal M, Renwick JAA (1998a) Differential postalightment oviposition behavior of monarch butterflies on Asclepias species. J Inst Behav 11:507–538CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Haribal M, Renwick JAA (1998b) Identification and distribution of oviposition stimulants for monarch butterflies in hosts and nonhosts. J Chem Ecol 24:891–904CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Hochberg ME (1987) The within-plant distribution and feeding behavior of Heliothis armigera (Lep., Noctuidae) on greenhouse tomatoes. J Appl Entomol 104:256–261CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Hulley PE (1988) Caterpillar attacks plant mechanical defence by mowing trichomes before feeding. Ecol Entomol 13:239–241CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Jackson DM (1982) Searching behavior and survival of 1st-instar codling moths. Ann Entomol Soc Am 75:284–289CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Knight A, Brower LP (2009) The Influence of Eastern North American autumnal migrant monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus L.) on continuously breeding resident monarch populations in southern Florida. J Chem Ecol 35:816–823CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. Ladner DT, Altizer S (2005) Oviposition preference and larval performance of North American monarch butterflies on four Asclepias species. Entomol Exp Appl 116:9–20CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Leddy PM, Paine TD, Bellows TS Jr (1993) Ovipositional preference of Siphoninus phillyreae and its fitness on seven host plant species. Entomol Exp Appl 68:43–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Leddy PM, Paine TD, Bellows TS Jr (1995) Biology of Siphoninus phillyreae (Haliday) (Homoptera: Aleyrodidae) and its relationship to temperature. Environ Entomol 24:380–386CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Lefevre T, Chiang A, Kelavkar M, Li H, Li J, Lopez Fernandez de Castillejo C, Oliver L, Potini Y, Hunter MD, De Roode JC (2012) Behavioral resistance against a protozoan parasite in the monarch butterfly. J Anim Ecol 81:70–79CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  33. Lucansky TW, Clough KT (1986) Comparitive anatomy and morphology of Asclepias perennis and Asclepias tuberosa subspecies rolfsii. Bot Gaz 147:290–301CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Malcolm SB (1991) Cardenolide-mediated interactions between plants and herbivores. In: Rosenthal GA, Berenbaum MR (eds) Herbivores: their interactions with secondary plant metabolites, 2nd edn. Academic, San Diego, pp 251–291CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Malcolm SB (1995) Milkweeds, monarch butterflies and the ecological significance of cardenolides. Chemoecol 5/6:101–117CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Malcolm SB, Brower LP (1986) Selective oviposition by monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus L.) in a mixed stand of Asclepias curassavica L. and A. incarnate L. in South Florida. J Lepidopterol Soc 40:255–263Google Scholar
  37. Malcolm SB, Brower LP (1989) Evolutionary and ecological implications of cardenolide sequesteration in the monarch butterfly. Experientia 45:284–295CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Matkin OA, Chandler PA (1957) The U.C. soil type mixes. In Baker KF (ed.) The U.C. system for producing healthy container-grown plants. University of California Agricultural Experiment Station Manual 23:68–85. University of California, Berkeley, CAGoogle Scholar
  39. Mayhew PJ (1997) Adaptive patterns of host-plant selection by phytophagous insects. Oikos 79:417–428CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Munz PA, Keck DD (1968) A California Flora. University of California Press, BerkeleyGoogle Scholar
  41. Oberhauser KS, Solensky MJ (2002) The monarch butterfly: Biology and conservation. Preface. Cornell University Press, IthacaGoogle Scholar
  42. Oyeyele SO, Zalucki MP (1990) Cardiac glycosides and oviposition by Danaus plexippus on Asclepias fruticosa in south-east Queensland (Australia), with notes on the effect of plantnitrogen content. Ecol Entomol 15:177–185CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Pierce AA, Zalucki MP, Bangura M, Udawatta M, Kronforst MR, Altizer S, Fernández Haeger J, de Roode JC (2014) Serial founder effects and genetic differentiation during worldwide range expansion of monarch butterflies. Proc Royal Soc B Biol Sci 281:20142230–20142230CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Rausher MD (1984) Trade-offs in performance on different hosts: evidence for within- and between-site variation in the beetle Deloyala guttata. Evol 38:582–595CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Shephard JM, Hughes JM, Zalucki MP (2002) Genetic differentiation between Australian and North American populations of the monarch butterfly Danaus plexippus (L.) (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae): an exploration using allozyme electrophoresis. Biol J Linn Soc 75:437–452CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Sternberg ED, Lefevre T, Li J, Lopez Fernandez de Castillejo C, Li H, Hunter MD, de Roode JC (2012) Food plant-derived disease tolerance and resistance in a natural butterfly-plant-parasite interactions. Evolution 66:3367–3376CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  47. Thompson NT (1988) Evolutionary ecology of the relationship between oviposition preference and performance of offspring in phytophagous insects. Entomol Exp Appl 47:3–14CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Urquhart FA (1987) The Monarch Butterfly: International Traveler. University of Toronto Press, TorontoGoogle Scholar
  49. Vane-Wright R (1993) The Columbus Hypothesis: an explanation for the dramatic range expansion of the monarch butterfly. pp. 179–186. In Solensky MJ, Oberhauser KS (eds.) Biology and Conservation of the Monarch Butterfly Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Los Angeles, CAGoogle Scholar
  50. Zalucki MP (1982) Temperature and rate of development in two species of Danaus, D. plexippus and D. chrysippus. J Austr Entomol Soc 21:241–46CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Zalucki MP (1986) The monarch butterfly - a non-pest exotic insect. In: Kitching RL (ed) The ecology of exotic animals and plants: Some Australian case studies. Wiley, New York, pp 130–142Google Scholar
  52. Zalucki MP, Brower LP (1992) Survival of first instar larvae of Danaus plexippus (Lepidoptera: Danainae) in relation to cardiac glycoside and latex content of Asclepias humistrata (Asclepiadaceae). Chemoecology 3:81–93CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Zalucki MP, Clarke AR (2004) Monarchs across the Pacific: the Columbus hypothesis revisited. Biol J Linn Soc 82:111–121CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Zalucki MP, Kitching RL (1982) Dynamics of oviposition in Danaus plexippus (Insecta: Lepidoptera) on milkweed, Asclepias spp. J Zool 198:103–116CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Zalucki MP, Malcolm SB (1999) Plant Latex and First-Instar Monarch Larval Growth and Survival on Three North American Milkweed Species. J Chem Ecol 25:1827–1842CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Zalucki MP, Oyeyele S, Vowles P (1989) Selective oviposition by Danaus plexippus L. (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae) in a mixed stand of Asclepias fruticosa and A. curassavica in southeast Queensland. J Aust Entomol Soc 28:141–146CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Zalucki MP, Brower LP, Malcolm SB (1990) Oviposition by Danaus plexippus in relation to cardenolide content of three Asclepias species in southeastern USA. Ecol Entomol 15:231–240CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Zalucki MP, Brower LP, Alonso A (2001a) Detrimental effects of latex and cardiac glycosides on survival and growth of first-instar monarch butterfly larvae Danaus plexippus feeding on the sandhill milkweed Asclepias humistrata. Ecol Entomol 26:212–224CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Zalucki MP, Malcolm SB, Paine TD, Hanlon CC, Brower LP, Clarke AR (2001b) It’s the first bite that counts: survival of first-instar monarchs on milkweeds. Austral Ecol 26:547–555CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Zalucki MP, Clarke AR, Malcolm SB (2002) Ecology and behavior of first instar larval Lepidoptera. Annu Rev Entomol 47:361–393CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  61. Zalucki MP, Malcolm SB, Hanlon CC, Paine TD (2012) First-instar monarch larval growth and survival on milkweeds in southern California: effects of latex, leaf hairs and cardenolides. Chemoecology 22:75–88CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • G. F. Robertson
    • 1
  • M. P. Zalucki
    • 2
  • T. D. Paine
    • 3
  1. 1.Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology Graduate ProgramUniversity of CaliforniaRiversideUSA
  2. 2.School of Biological SciencesThe University of QueenslandBrisbaneAustralia
  3. 3.Department of EntomologyUniversity of CaliforniaRiversideUSA

Personalised recommendations