A new study in Ecology Letters has discovered that monarch butterflies employ medicinal plants to treat their larva. Researchers found that certain species of milkweed, which the larva feed on, can reduce the threat of a sometime deadly parasite. However, even more surprising: “we have also found that infected female butterflies prefer to lay their eggs on plants that will make their offspring less sick, suggesting that monarchs have evolved the ability to medicate their offspring,” says lead author Jaap de Roode.
According to de Roode this is the best evidence yet of animals employing medication to prevent or cure disease.
“The results are also exciting because the behavior is trans-generational,” Thierry Lefevre, a member of de Roode’s lab, said. “While the mother is expressing the behavior, only her offspring benefit. That finding is surprising for monarch butterflies.”
When monarch butterfly larva feed on certain species of milkweed they consume a chemical known as cardenolides, which can kill a bothersome gut parasite in the butterflies known as Ophryocystis elektroscirrha. This parasite can hurt a butterfly’s ability to fly, shorten their life-span, and in worse-case-scenarios outright kill them. Since female butterflies pass the parasite on to their offspring, researchers wondered if infected monarch mothers would act on the disease. Proving their hypothesis: in lab tests de Roode discovered that infected mothers preferred to lay their eggs on milkweed with the toxic cardenolides, while those unaffected with the parasite were ambivalent.
The researchers say that studying how animals utilize medicinal compounds in their surroundings could lead humans to discover new drugs.
Uncovering the intelligence of insects, an interview with Lars Chittka
(06/29/2010) Many people would likely consider ‘insect intelligence’ a contradiction in terms, viewing insects—when they think of them as anything more than pests—as something like hardwired tiny robots, not adaptive, not intelligent, and certainly not conscious. However, research over the last few decades have shown that a number of well-studied insects are capable of performing amazing intellectual feats, from recognizing individuals to employing a symbolic language in a behavior known as a ‘bee waggle’. “Already in 1900, Buttel-Reepen asked whether honeybees are mere reflex machines—and emphatically denied that claim,” Dr. Lars Chittka, professor of Sensory and Behavioral Ecology at Queen Mary University in London, told mongabay.com in an interview. “Over the last century, we have seen a fundamental change in perspective on the learning capacities of insects, and there a now several credible lines of evidence that insects are capable of cognitive feats that had previously been ascribed only to ‘higher’ vertebrates”.
Cricket mothers warn offspring about spiders before they hatch
(02/21/2010) Cricket mothers are long gone by the time their infants hatch, so one would assume that cricket parents have little effect on their offspring’s behavior. Not so, according to a new study in the American Naturalist which proves that mother crickets have the potential to teach their offspring—while still in their eggs—about the hazards of spiders.
Scientists discover world’s first amphibious insects: Hawaiian caterpillars
(03/22/2010) Scientists have never before discovered a truly amphibious insect until now: writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences researchers have announced the discovery of 12 species of Hyposmocoma moths in the Hawaiian islands which they consider truly amphibious—that is a species able to survive both on land and underwater indefinitely.