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Research article2017Peer reviewed

Host Plant Species Differentiation in a Polyphagous Moth: Olfaction is Enough

Conchou, Lucie; Anderson, Peter; Birgersson, Goran


Polyphagous herbivorous insects need to discriminate suitable from unsuitable host plants in complex plant communities. While studies on the olfactory system of monophagous herbivores have revealed close adaptations to their host plant's characteristic volatiles, such adaptive fine-tuning is not possible when a large diversity of plants is suitable. Instead, the available literature on polyphagous herbivore preferences suggests a higher level of plasticity, and a bias towards previously experienced plant species. It is therefore necessary to take into account the diversity of plant odors that polyphagous herbivores encounter in the wild in order to unravel the olfactory basis of their host plant choice behaviour. In this study we show that a polyphagous moth, Spodoptera littoralis, has the sensory ability to distinguish five host plant species using olfaction alone, this being a prerequisite to the ability to make a choice. We have used gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GC-MS) and gas chromatography electroantennographic detection (GC-EAD) in order to describe host plant odor profiles as perceived by S. littoralis. We find that each plant emits specific combinations and proportions of GC-EAD active volatiles, leading to statistically distinct profiles. In addition, at least four of these plants show GC-EAD active compound proportions that are conserved across individual plants, a characteristic that enables insects to act upon previous olfactory experiences during host plant choice. By identifying the volatiles involved in olfactory differentiation of alternative host plants by Spodoptera littoralis, we set the groundwork for deeper investigations of how olfactory perceptions translate into behaviour in polyphagous herbivores.


GC-EAD active volatile profile; Plant volatiles; Diet breadth; Host-plant perception; Non-induced vegetative odor; Olfactory differentiation; Spodoptera littoralis

Published in

Journal of Chemical Ecology
2017, Volume: 43, number: 8, pages: 794-805
Publisher: SPRINGER