Geographic variation in alkaloid production in Conium maculatum populations experiencing differential herbivory by Agonopterix alstroemeriana

Eva Castells, Mark A. Berhow, Steven F. Vaughn, May R. Berenbaum

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Conium maculatum, a Eurasian weed naturalized in North America, contains high concentrations of piperidine alkaloids that act as chemical defenses against herbivores. C. maculatum was largely free from herbivory in the United States, until approximately 30 yr ago, when it was reassociated via accidental introduction with a monophagous European herbivore, the oecophorid caterpillar Agonopterix alstroemeriana. At present, A. alstroemeriana is found in a continuum of reassociation time and intensities with C. maculatum across the continent; in the Pacific Northwest, A. alstroemeriana can cause severe damage, resulting in some cases in complete defoliation. Studies in biological control and invasion biology have yet to determine whether plants reassociated with a significant herbivore from the area of indigeneity increase their chemical defense investment in areas of introduction. In this study, we compared three locations in the United States (New York, Washington, and Illinois) where C. maculatum experiences different levels of herbivory by A. alstroemeriana to determine the association between the intensity of the interaction, as measured by damage, and chemical defense production. Total alkaloid production in C. maculatum was positively correlated with A. alstroemeriana herbivory levels: plants from New York and Washington, with higher herbivory levels, invested two and four times more N to alkaloid synthesis than did plants from Illinois. Individual plants with lower concentrations of alkaloids from a single location in Illinois experienced more damage by A. alstroemeriana, indicative of a preference on the part of the insect for plants with less chemical defense. These results suggest that A. alstroemeriana may act either as a selective agent or inducing agent for C. maculatum and increase its toxicity in its introduced range.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1693-1709
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Chemical Ecology
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2005


  • Agonopterix alstroemeriana
  • Alkaloids
  • Chemical defenses
  • Conhydrinone
  • Coniine
  • Conium maculatum
  • Evolution
  • Herbivory
  • Insect-plant interactions
  • γ-coniceine

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Biochemistry


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