Behavioural resistance against a protozoan parasite in the monarch butterfly


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1. As parasites can dramatically reduce the fitness of their hosts, there should be strong selection for hosts to evolve and maintain defence mechanisms against their parasites. One way in which hosts may protect themselves against parasitism is through altered behaviours, but such defences have been much less studied than other forms of parasite resistance.

2. We studied whether monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus L.) use altered behaviours to protect themselves and their offspring against the protozoan parasite Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (McLaughlin & Myers (1970), Journal of Protozoology, 17, p. 300). In particular, we studied whether (i) monarch larvae can avoid contact with infectious parasite spores; (ii) infected larvae preferentially consume therapeutic food plants when given a choice or increase the intake of such plants in the absence of choice; and (iii) infected female butterflies preferentially lay their eggs on medicinal plants that make their offspring less sick.

3. We found that monarch larvae were unable to avoid infectious parasite spores. Larvae were also not able to preferentially feed on therapeutic food plants or increase the ingestion of such plants. However, infected female butterflies preferentially laid their eggs on food plants that reduce parasite growth in their offspring.

4. Our results suggest that animals may use altered behaviours as a protection against parasites and that such behaviours may be limited to a single stage in the host–parasite life cycle. Our results also suggest that animals may use altered behaviours to protect their offspring instead of themselves. Thus, our study indicates that an inclusive fitness approach should be adopted to study behavioural defences against parasites.