Preference, performance, and chemical defense in an endangered butterfly using novel and ancestral host plants

Adoption of novel host plants by herbivorous insects can require new adaptations and may entail loss of adaptation to ancestral hosts. We examined relationships between an endangered subspecies of the butterfly Euphydryas editha (Taylor’s checkerspot) and three host plant species. Two of the hosts (Castilleja hispida, Castilleja levisecta) were used ancestrally while the other, Plantago lanceolata, is exotic and was adopted more recently. We measured oviposition preference, neonate preference, larval growth, and secondary chemical uptake on all three hosts. Adult females readily laid eggs on all hosts but favored Plantago and tended to avoid C. levisecta. Oviposition preference changed over time. Neonates had no preference among host species, but consistently chose bracts over leaves within both Castilleja species. Larvae developed successfully on all species and grew to similar size on all of them unless they ate only Castilleja leaves (rather than bracts) which limited their growth. Diet strongly influenced secondary chemical uptake by larvae. Larvae that ate Plantago or C. hispida leaves contained the highest concentrations of iridoid glycosides, and iridoid glycoside composition varied with host species and tissue type. Despite having largely switched to a novel exotic host and generally performing better on it, this population has retained breadth in preference and ability to use other hosts.