Physiological factors affecting the rapid decrease in protein assimilation efficiency by a caterpillar on newly-mature tree leaves


Correspondence: Raymond V. Barbehenn, Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109-1048, U.S.A. Tel.: +1 734-764-2770; e-mail:


Lymantria dispar L. caterpillars have a decreased ability to assimilate protein from mature leaves of red oak (Quercus rubra) compared with young, expanding leaves. The present study determines whether the drop in protein assimilation efficiency (PAE) occurs during the rapid phase of leaf maturation. Several mechanisms that might account for decreased PAE are also examined: mature leaf tissues could resist being chewed efficiently, protein in mature leaf tissues could become difficult to extract, and other nutrients in mature leaves might become growth limiting. The entire seasonal decrease in PAE occurs rapidly (in less than 2 weeks), when the leaves finished expanding. The maturation process is characterized by increased levels of fibre and decreased levels of water but no significant changes in the levels of protein or carbohydrates. Despite increased fibre in mature leaves, they are not chewed into larger food particles than are immature leaves. Carbohydrate assimilation efficiencies remain high on mature leaves, and signs of limiting water levels in larvae of L. dispar on mature leaves are not observed. The most important finding in the present study is the decreased extractability of protein in food particles from mature leaves, which plays a major role in explaining the rapid decrease in PAE. It is hypothesized that structural changes in cell walls during the rapid process of leaf maturation decrease protein extractability, which, in turn, greatly decreases the nutritional quality of mature oak leaves for caterpillars. The results of the present study therefore suggest a general mechanism to help explain the widely documented decrease in the nutritional quality of the mature leaves of many tree species for herbivorous insects.