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You are what you eat: A color-changing insect modifies diet to become distasteful

February 08, 2019

An article in Scientific Reports shows that a new invasive insect, the spotted lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula; Fig. 1), can contribute to a better understanding of prey defense against predators. This insect has been extensively studied by applied entomologists world-wide, but nobody paid attention to its evolution. It is well known that many plant-eating insects deposit some of the plant chemicals in their bodies to make themselves toxic or distasteful to predators. It is also well known that many of these insects are brightly colored in order to clearly advertise their distastefulness to predators. But, only a few organisms, such like the common caterpillars or grasshoppers have been studied in details and these were all we know, until recently. Among the brightly colored lanternflies, mostly living in tropical jungles so we don't know them well, one species, the spotted lanternfly, has become an invasive species that spreads across the world and their colors were spotted by the undergraduate students in Korea.

According to this recent study, when spotted lanternflies suck juice from the specific tree species that they like, the tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima), the bitter juice (the main of the chemicals is called "ailanthone") from the tree comes into their body. This makes them distasteful: birds do not like them and may vomit after eating them. "You really can taste the bitterness yourself if you lick or bite on the insect yourself" - says Dr. Piotr Jablonski, who actually tasted both the surface of the insect cuticle and the interior of the insects. Dr. Sung Won Kwon and a graduate student Shinae Kim from the College of Pharmacy, Seoul National University, were able to discover that by feeding on the tree of heaven the insects store bitter substances from the tree in their bodies.

"Thanks to an undergraduate student Soorim Song, who became the first co-author of the study, we have evidence that birds avoid lanternflies that feed on the tree of heaven because those insect taste bad to the birds" says Dr. Sang-im Lee from Daegu Gyeonbuk Institute of Science and Technology (DGIST). When young lanternflies grow, there is a time in their life when they become brightly red. Around this time, they also become very choosy in their diet and start feeding mostly on the tree of heaven, the tree with bitter juice. In this way, they coordinate the moment when they become bright and visible to predators with the time when they become distasteful to predators. Birds quickly learn to avoid bitter prey when the prey are brightly colored, and this research showed that coordinated changes in color, host plant preferences, and diet are needed to protect the insects from predators. Later in life, when they become adults they are signaling their distastefulness by red-hindwing displays as already reported over two years ago by researchers form the same lab. Some other species of tropical lanternflies have also conspicuously colored nymphs and adult's wing displays, and the authors believe that studies on the spotted lanternfly shed a light on the behavior of other lanternfllies, most of which live in inaccessible tropical jungles where similar studies would have been much more difficult. Probably because of these difficulties, this is the first published proof that lanternflies accumulate specific chemicals from plant juices to protect themselves from predators.

This is a perfect example of how a successful undergraduate research can lead to discoveries. "With help, support and collaboration from the professors and graduate students Soorim was able to collect the core data by herself and to co-write the paper later" says Dr. Jablonski, who has been teaching at Seoul National University since 2007. He observes that sometimes undergraduates can be more emotionally excited about conducting real research than graduate students are, and he hopes that the National Research Foundation of Korea would consider supporting professors at undergraduate programs by opening special grant funds similar to the American NSF's Research in Undergraduate Institutions (RUI) or Research Opportunity Awards (ROA) programs.
-end-
Source: Scientific Reports, volume 8, Article number: 16831 (2018): https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-34946-y) Contact persons: Sang-im Lee (sangim@dgist.ac.kr) or Piotr Jablonski (piotrjab@hotmail.com).

Laboratory of Behavioral Ecology and Evolution at Seoul National University

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