Eur. J. Entomol. 106 (2): 253-259, 2009 | 10.14411/eje.2009.033

Chemical defence of the warningly coloured caterpillars of Methona themisto (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae: Ithomiinae)

Kamila F. MASSUDA, José R. TRIGO*
Laboratório de Ecologia Química, Departamento de Zoologia, Instituto de Biologia, Universidade Estadual de Campinas, CP 6109, 13083-970 Campinas, SP, Brazil

The caterpillars of the butterfly Methona themisto (Nymphalidae: Ithomiinae) are conspicuously coloured and feed exclusively on Brunfelsia uniflora (Solanaceae), a plant that is rich in secondary plant substances, which suggests the caterpillars are chemically protected against predators. Results of experiments indicate that predators determine the survival of Methona themisto caterpillars in the field and laboratory bioassays that this organism is eaten by ants and spiders but not chicks. Both the conspicuous orange and black striped colouration and chemical compounds of Methona themisto caterpillars seem to be related to protection against predation by visually hunting predators. Chicks ate proportionally more of the cryptically coloured 1st instar caterpillars than of the conspicuously coloured later instar caterpillars. That Methona themisto caterpillars are chemically defended is supported by the activity of the dichloromethanic extract of 5th instars in preventing predation by chicks. Caterpillars of Methona themisto are aposematic as they are both (1) unpalatable, and (2) their warning signal is easily recognized by potential predators. Chicks learned to avoid the aposematic 3rd or 5th instar caterpillars after one encounter. Mealworms painted to look like caterpillars were also rejected by chicks that had previously encountered Methona caterpillars. Naïve chicks did not avoid eating the painted mealworms, which indicates they do not innately avoid this specific colour pattern.

Keywords: Aposematism, Brunfelsia uniflora, Camponotus crassus, Gallus gallus domesticus, learning, Lycosa erythrognatha, predation, Solanaceae, unpalatability

Received: July 4, 2008; Accepted: January 7, 2009; Published: May 20, 2009

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