Oviposition preference and larval performance of North American monarch butterflies on four Asclepias species
Monarch butterflies, Danaus plexippus L. (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae), occur world-wide and are specialist herbivores of plants in the milkweed family (Asclepiadaceae). In North America, two monarch populations breed east and west of the continental divide in areas populated by different host plant species. To examine the population variation in monarch responses to different Asclepias species, we measured oviposition preference and larval performance among captive progeny reared from adult butterflies collected in eastern and western North America. Host plant use was evaluated using two milkweed species widely distributed in eastern North America (A. incarnata and A. syriaca), and two species common to western North America (A. fascicularis and A. speciosa). We predicted that exposure to different host plant species in their respective breeding ranges could select for divergent host use traits, so that monarchs should preferentially lay more eggs on, and larvae should perform better on, milkweed species common to their native habitats. Results showed that across all adult female butterflies, oviposition preferences were highest for A. incarnata and lowest for A. fascicularis, but mean preferences did not differ significantly between eastern and western monarch populations. Larvae from both populations experienced the highest survival and growth rates on A. incarnata and A. fascicularis, and we again found no significant interactions between monarch source population and milkweed species. Moreover, the average rank order of larval performance did not correspond directly to mean female oviposition preferences, suggesting that additional factors beyond larval performance influence monarch oviposition behavior. Finally, significant family level variation was observed for both preference and performance responses within populations, suggesting an underlying genetic variation or maternal effects governing these traits.