Alarm pheromone mediates production of winged dispersal morphs in aphids




The aphid alarm pheromone (E)-β-farnesene (EBF) is the major example of defence communication in the insect world. Released when aphids are attacked by predators such as ladybirds or lacewing larvae, aphid alarm pheromone causes behavioural reactions such as walking or dropping off the host plant. In this paper, we show that the exposure to alarm pheromone also induces aphids to give birth to winged dispersal morphs that leave their host plants. We first demonstrate that the alarm pheromone is the only volatile compound emitted from aphid colonies under predator attack and that emission is proportional to predator activity. We then show that artificial alarm pheromone induces groups of aphids but not single individuals to produce a higher proportion of winged morphs among their offspring. Furthermore, aphids react more strongly to the frequency of pheromone release than the amount of pheromone delivered. We suggest that EBF leads to a ‘pseudo crowding’ effect whereby alarm pheromone perception causes increased walking behaviour in aphids resulting in an increase in the number of physical contacts between individuals, similar to what happens when aphids are crowded. As many plants also produce EBF, our finding suggests that aphids could be manipulated by plants into leaving their hosts, but they also show that the context-dependence of EBF-induced wing formation may hinder such an exploitation of intraspecific signalling by plants.