Soil nutrient effects on oviposition preference, larval performance, and chemical defense of a specialist insect herbivore

Kathleen L. Prudic, Jeffrey C. Oliver, M. Deane Bowers

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

84 Scopus citations


This study examined the effects of increased leaf nitrogen in natural host-plants (Plantago spp.) on female oviposition preference, larval performance, and larval chemical defense of the butterfly Junonia coenia. Increased availability of soil nutrients caused the host-plant's foliar nitrogen to increase and its chemical defense to decrease. Larval performance did not correlate with increases in foliar nitrogen. Larval growth rate and survival were equivalent across host-plant treatments. However, larvae raised on fertilized host-plants showed concomitant decreases in chemical defense as compared to larvae reared on unfertilized host-plants. Since most butterfly larvae cannot move long distances during their first few instars and are forced to feed upon the plant on which they hatched, J. coenia larval chemical defense is determined, in large part, by female oviposition choice. Female butterflies preferred host-plants with high nitrogen over host-plants with low nitrogen; however, this preference was also mediated by plant chemical defense. Female butterflies preferred more chemically defended host-plants when foliar nitrogen was equivalent between host-plants. J. coenia larvae experience intense predation in the field, especially when larvae are not chemically well defended. Any qualitative or quantitative variation in plant allelochemical defense has fitness consequences on these larvae. Thus, these results indicate that females may be making sub-optimal oviposition decisions under a nutrient-enriched regime, when predators are present. Given the recent increase in fertilizer application and nitrogen deposition on the terrestrial landscape, these interactions between female preference, larval performance, and larval chemical defense may result in long-term changes in population dynamics and persistence of specialist insects.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)578-587
Number of pages10
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 2005


  • Female preference
  • Herbivore performance
  • Host-plant quality
  • Lepidoptera
  • Nutrient enrichment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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