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PLOS ONE  2014 

Does Skipping a Meal Matter to a Butterfly's Appearance? Effects of Larval Food Stress on Wing Morphology and Color in Monarch Butterflies

DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0093492

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Abstract:

In animals with complex life cycles, all resources needed to form adult tissues are procured at the larval stage. For butterflies, the proper development of wings involves synthesizing tissue during metamorphosis based on the raw materials obtained by larvae. Similarly, manufacture of pigment for wing scales also requires resources acquired by larvae. We conducted an experiment to test the effects of food deprivation in the larval stage on multiple measures of adult wing morphology and coloration of monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus), a species in which long-distance migration makes flight efficiency critical. In a captive setting, we restricted food (milkweed) from late-stage larvae for either 24 hrs or 48 hrs, then after metamorphosis we used image analysis methods to measure forewing surface area and elongation (length/width), which are both important for migration. We also measured the brightness of orange pigment and the intensity of black on the wing. There were correlations between several wing features, including an unexpected association between wing elongation and melanism, which will require further study to fully understand. The clearest effect of food restriction was a reduction in adult wing size in the high stress group (by approximately 2%). Patterns observed for other wing traits were ambiguous: monarchs in the low stress group (but not the high) had less elongated and paler orange pigmentation. There was no effect on wing melanism. Although some patterns obtained in this study were unclear, our results concerning wing size have direct bearing on the monarch migration. We show that if milkweed is limited for monarch larvae, their wings become stunted, which could ultimately result in lower migration success.

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