1. Utilization of plant secondary compounds for antipredator defence is common in immature herbivorous insects. Such defences may incur a cost to the animal, either in terms of survival, growth rate or in the reproductive success.
2. A common defence in lepidopterans is the regurgitation of semi-digested material containing the defensive compounds of the food plant, a defence which has led to gut specialization in this order. Regurgitation is often swift in response to cuticular stimulation and deters predators from consuming or parasitizing the larva. The loss of food and other gut material seems likely to impact on fitness, but evidence is lacking.
3. Here, we raised larvae of the common crop pest Pieris brassicae on commercial cabbage leaves, simulated predator attacks throughout the larval period, and measured life-history responses.
4. We found that the probability of survival to pupation decreased with increasing frequency of attacks, but this was because of regurgitation rather than the stimulation itself. There was a growth cost to the defence such that the more regurgitant that individuals produced over the growth period, the smaller they were at pupation.
5. The number of mature eggs in adult females was positively related to pupal mass, but this relationship was only found when individuals were not subjected to a high frequency of predator simulation. This suggests that there might be cryptic fitness costs to common defensive responses that are paid despite apparent growth rate being maintained.
6. Our results demonstrate a clear life-history cost of an antipredator defence in a model pest species and show that under certain conditions, such as high predation threat, the expected relationship between female body size and potential fecundity can be disrupted.