Moths avoid caterpillar feces during oviposition

An olfactory co-receptor allows moths to avoid intraspecific competition

Ovipositing insects use odor cues to select suitable food substrates for their offspring in order to increase the survival rates of the larvae. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany, demonstrated that not only may plant odors determine the best oviposition site, but also the frass of other larvae of the same species. They specified the repelling substance in the feces of tobacco hornworm larvae which signals the presence of competing conspecifics to the female moths. Moreover, the researchers were able to identify an odorant receptor which is involved in the detection of the typical smell of larval frass and thereby governs competition avoidance during oviposition.

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Jin Zhang (left) and Markus Knaden observe the behavior of a tobacco hawkmoth in the wind tunnel.
© MPI for Chemical Ecology/ Angela Overmeyer

Tobacco hornworms (Manduca sexta) are extremely voracious. Their Latin name Manduca is derived from the verb manducare, which means eating or chewing. A single larva is able to defoliate a host plant completely. Hence, one plant is seldom enough to feed a second caterpillar. “We knew already that moths select their oviposition sites carefully. So far we and others basically focused on the idea that the moths detect changes in the odor profiles of plants that have already been attacked by caterpillars and therefore lay their eggs somewhere else. We were interested in whether moths also consider information that is provided by the larvae, i.e. by the potential competitors of the moths’ offspring, directly,” explains Markus Knaden, one of the main authors of the publication.

It seemed plausible that tobacco hawkmoths would try to avoid competition for their offspring. Nevertheless, that so-called 6-carbon aliphatic acids would be sufficient to trigger avoidance behavior came as a surprise. Behavioral assays in the wind tunnel in which moths were exposed to individual odor components on filter paper clearly showed that moths were repelled by some of the frass-related compounds.

Receptor regulates the avoidance of larval frass

This specificity in the avoidance response to 6-carbon aliphatic acids allowed the scientists to elucidate the molecular basis of the behavior. By using the novel technique CRISPR/Cas9, they knocked out specific receptor proteins in the antennae, the moth’s nose, that were crucial for the detection of these compounds, and were thus able to show that the ionotropic receptor 8a (IR8a) governs the avoidance response to larval feces.

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