Specialist deterrent chemoreceptors enable Pieris caterpillars to discriminate between chemically different deterrents



Pieris butterflies (Lepidoptera: Pieridae) are specialist herbivores of cruciferous plants. They exploit glucosinolates, secondary plant metabolites chemotaxonomically characteristic for this plant family, as token stimuli. In addition to particular glucosinolates, some genera of the Cruciferae contain cardenolides, steroidal allelochemicals that act as potent feeding and oviposition deterrents to several Pieris species. We investigated the sensory mechanisms by which these compounds are perceived in larvae. Pieris caterpillars and many other lepidopterous species are endowed with so-called generalist deterrent receptors, that respond to a broad spectrum of secondary plant substances. In Pieris caterpillars we found a second type of deterrent chemoreceptor in maxillary styloconic taste sensilla. This neuron is very sensitive to cardenolides (threshold 0.1–0.3 μM). The generalist deterrent receptor also responds to these substances but its threshold lies at 50–100× higher concentrations. In behavioural preference experiments Pieris brassicae L. caterpillars preferred cardenolide-treated cabbage leaf discs when confronted with a choice between them and a deterrent substance that does not occur in the Brassicaceae. The cardenolides acted as potent deterrents when offered against untreated cabbage leaf discs. This demonstrates that the balance of activity elicited in the two types of deterrent chemoreceptors determines the behavioural decision.