• cardenolide;
  • cardiac glycoside;
  • coevolution;
  • cysteine protease;
  • macroevolution;
  • monarch butterfly;
  • Danaus plexippus;
  • plant defense theory;
  • phylogenetic analyses;
  • plant-insect interactions;
  • Asclepiadaceae;
  • Lepidoptera;
  • Nymphalidae


A tremendous diversity of plants exude sticky and toxic latex upon tissue damage, and its production has been widely studied as a defensive adaptation against insect herbivores. Here, we address variation in latex production and its constituent chemical properties (cardenolides and cysteine proteases) in 53 milkweeds [Asclepias spp. (Apocynaceae)], employing a phylogenetic approach to test macroevolutionary hypotheses of defense evolution. Species were highly variable for all three traits, and they showed little evidence for strong phylogenetic conservatism. Latex production and the constituent chemical defenses are thus evolutionarily labile and may evolve rapidly. Nonetheless, in phylogenetically independent analyses, we show that the three traits show some correlations (and thus share a correlated evolutionary history), including a positive correlation between latex exudation and cysteine protease activity. Conversely, latex exudation and cysteine protease activity both showed a trade-off with cardenolide concentrations in latex. We also tested whether these traits have increased in their phenotypic values as the milkweeds diversified, as predicted by plant defense escalation theory. Alternative methods of testing this prediction gave conflicting results – there was an overall negative correlation between amount of evolutionary change and amount of latex exudation; however, ancestral state reconstructions indicated that most speciation events were associated with increases in latex. We conclude by (i) summarizing the evidence of milkweed latex itself as a multivariate defense including the amount exuded and toxin concentrations within, (ii) assessing the coordinated evolution of latex traits and how this fits with our previous notion of ‘plant defense syndromes’, and finally, (iii) proposing a novel hypothesis that includes an ‘evolving community of herbivores’ that may promote the escalation or decline of particular defensive strategies as plant lineages diversify.