Species-specific, age-varying plant traits affect herbivore growth and survival

Louie H. Yang, Meredith L. Cenzer, Laura J. Morgan, and Griffin W. Hall


Seasonal windows of opportunity represent intervals of time within a year during which organisms have improved prospects of achieving life history aims such as growth or reproduction, and may be commonly structured by temporal variation in abiotic factors, bottom-up factors, and top-down factors. Although seasonal windows of opportunity are likely to be common, few studies have examined the factors that structure seasonal windows of opportunity in time. Here, we experimentally manipulated host plant age in two milkweed species (Asclepias fascicularis and Asclepias speciosa) in order to investigate the role of plant species-specific and plant age-varying traits on the survival and growth of monarch caterpillars (Danaus plexippus). We show that the two plant species showed diverging trajectories of defense traits with increasing age. These species-specific and age-varying host plant traits significantly affected the growth and survival of monarch caterpillars through both resource quality- and resource quantity-based constraints. The effects of plant age on monarch developmental success were comparable to and sometimes larger than those of plant species identity. We conclude that species-specific and age-varying plant traits are likely to be important factors with the potential to structure seasonal windows of opportunity for monarch development, and examine the implications of these findings for both broader patterns in the ontogeny of plant defense traits and the specific ecology of milkweed-monarch interactions in a changing world.