Journal of Chemical Ecology

, Volume 33, Issue 2, pp 319–329 | Cite as

Spectrum of Cyanide Toxicity and Allocation in Heliconius erato and Passiflora Host Plants

  • Mirian Medina Hay-RoeEmail author
  • James Nation


The larvae of three races of Heliconius erato were fed various species of Passiflora containing varying levels of cyanoglucosides. The mortality rate of larvae and pupae rose when larvae were fed species of Passiflora capable of releasing larger quantities of cyanide. When larvae were fed species of Passiflora with these properties, the resulting adult butterflies also released higher levels of cyanide. This may serve as a defense mechanism. The compounds responsible for the release of cyanide were not evenly distributed throughout the adult butterfly’s body. The thorax contained the highest concentration of cyanogenic substances, followed by the head, wings, and abdomen. The younger tissues of Passiflora plants had higher levels of cyanide-releasing compounds than stems and mature leaves. Cyanogenic glycoside distribution within the plants is consistent with optimal allocation theory. The levels of cyanide-releasing substances in plants varied depending on the season.


Heliconius erato cyrbia Heliconius erato favorinus Heliconius erato demophoon Passiflora Cyanogenic glycosides β-glucosidase Cyanide Ecuador Peru Panama 



This study constitutes part of a University of Florida doctoral dissertation. MMHR thanks the following for help and encouragement: T. C. Emmel, F. Slansky, H. McAuslane, and D. Jones as members of my committee; C. Jiggins and M. Beltran for hospitality while in Panama; the Delores A. Auzenne Graduate Scholars Fellowship, the James & Margaret Gahan Scholarship, and the John A. Mülrennan Senior Scholarship at the University of Florida for financial support; Butterfly World; and the Association of Tropical Lepidoptera for travel grants to Tingo Maria, Huanuco, Peru, and Panama. We thank the Instituto de Recursos Naturales, Ministerio de Agricultura, Peru; the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Panama; and the United States Department of Agriculture for collecting, exporting, and importing permits.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Entomology and NematologyUniversity of FloridaGainesvilleUSA
  2. 2.McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and BiodiversityFlorida Museum of Natural HistoryGainesvilleUSA

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