Sap-feeding insects such as aphids are the only insect herbivores that show positive responses to elevated CO2. Recent models predict that increased nitrogen will increase aphid population size under elevated CO2, but few experiments have tested this idea empirically. To determine whether soil nitrogen (N) availability modifies aphid responses to elevated CO2, we tested the performance of Macrosiphum euphorbiae feeding on two host plants; a C3 plant (Solanum dulcamara), and a C4 plant (Amaranthus viridis). We expected aphid population size to increase on plants in elevated CO2, with the degree of increase depending on the N availability.
We found a significant CO2× N interaction for the response of population size for M. euphorbiae feeding on S. dulcamara: aphids feeding on plants grown in ambient CO2, low N conditions increased in response to either high N availability or elevated CO2. No population size responses were observed for aphids infesting A. viridis. Elevated CO2 increased plant biomass, specific leaf weight, and C : N ratios of the C3 plant, S. dulcamara but did not affect the C4 plant, A. viridis. Increased N fertilization significantly increased plant biomass, leaf area, and the weight : height ratio in both experiments. Elevated CO2 decreased leaf N in S. dulcamara and had no effect on A. viridis, while higher N availability increased leaf N in A. viridis and had no effect in S. dulcamara. Aphid infestation only affected the weight : height ratio of S. dulcamara.
We only observed an increase in aphid population size in response to elevated CO2 or increased N availability for aphids feeding on S. dulcamara grown under low N conditions. There appears to be a maximum population growth rate that M. euphorbiae aphids can attain, and we suggest that this response is because of intrinsic limits on development time and fecundity.