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Choice of oviposition sites by Manduca sexta and its consequences for egg and larval performance


Correspondence and current address: Kristen A. Potter, Division of Biological Sciences, University of Montana, Missoula, MT 59812, USA. E-mail:


The preference-performance hypothesis predicts that female insects should prefer to lay eggs in locations that enhance offspring performance. This study examines the choices of females regarding where to oviposit within plants, focusing on the hawkmoth Manduca sexta L. (Lepidoptera: Sphingidae) and its host Datura wrightii Regel (Solanaceae) in the southwestern USA. Smaller Datura leaves provide cooler microclimates for eggs (which may lead to faster embryonic development, shortening their exposure to egg predators) and more nitrogen for larvae. In contrast, large leaves reach temperatures that are stressfully high (which slows embryonic development) and provide less nitrogen for larvae. Thus, we would expect females to oviposit on small leaves. To examine whether leaf size influences female preference and offspring performance, we used laboratory and field studies to address the following questions. (1) On what size leaves do females typically oviposit? (2) Does the distribution of eggs in nature differ from that expected by chance? And (3) how does leaf size affect survival or growth of eggs and larvae? We find that oviposition choices of females do not lead to the highest probability of offspring survival. Females lay eggs on larger leaves, likely due to the greater accessibility of those leaves; however, eggs are more likely to hatch on small leaves. Larvae grow faster on large leaves, but larvae are also surprisingly mobile, suggesting that the consequences of oviposition site are minor once eggs have hatched. Larval mobility was seen only in the field, not in the laboratory, emphasizing the importance of field studies for predicting real-world performance. Although females' leaf choices are potentially risky for eggs, the threats of high temperature and predation may vary sufficiently in space and time that there is no consistent selection for strong preferences. Furthermore, the fitness consequences for eggs and larvae largely offset each other and offspring are sufficiently mobile to cope with the conditions where they are laid.