Liverpool, UK - 25 January 2011: Insects that frequently use their defence mechanisms to deter predators could be reducing their lifespan and numbers of offspring, researchers at the University of Liverpool have found.
Scientists, in collaboration with the University of Glasgow, studied the defences used by caterpillars that transform into large white butterflies, called Pieris brassicae. The insects regurgitate semi-digested cabbage leaves to make them smell and taste unpleasant to predators. The team found, however, that frequent use of this defence reduces the caterpillars’ growth rate and the number of eggs they produce. It remains unclear why their defences affect them in this way, but the loss of nutrition from frequent regurgitation is thought to play a part.
Caterpillars are a target of pest control, as they destroy food crop by eating the leaves of cabbages and other vegetable crop. This new study, however, suggests that natural predators, such as farmland birds, do not necessarily have to consume large numbers of insects, to have a significant effect on the size of the population. Researchers found that 40% of caterpillars that defended themselves from predators by regurgitating food, died before transforming into a butterfly, despite successfully surviving the initial attack.
The study also showed that on average large caterpillars have 60 eggs, but those that used their defences against daily predator attacks produced approximately 30 eggs. It is thought that this effect could be widespread amongst herbivorous insects, suggesting that predators may have a larger impact on reducing the population of agricultural pests than previously thought.