Parsnip webworms and host plants at home and abroad: Trophic complexity in a geographic mosaic

May R. Berenbaum, Arthur R. Zangerl

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Due to differences in the structure of communities in which interactions are embedded, the intensity of interactions between species may vary with location; thus, what results from differences in outcomes and in degree of specialization is a geographic mosaic, which provides the raw material for divergent coevolutionary trajectories. Where selection intensity is great, reciprocal responses are likely in so-called "hotspots"; in contrast, where selection pressures are relaxed, reciprocal responses in "coldspots" are far less likely to occur. There are few if any studies examining how a gradient of increasing trophic complexity might influence the probability of phenotype matching and, correspondingly, the " temperature" of the coevolutionary interaction. This study was conducted to compare outcomes of the interaction between wild parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) and parsnip webworm (Depressaria pastinacella) in its indigenous area, Europe, to its area of introduction, the midwestern United States. Specifically, we tested the hypothesis that increasing trophic complexity, represented by alternate host plants or the presence of natural enemies, reduces the selective impact of parsnip webworms and hence diminishes linkage between host plant chemistry and webworms that would be expected in coevolutionary hotspots. This comparison of a two-species interaction in its area of introduction and its area of indigeneity revealed common patterns that are more reflective of interaction temperature than of continental origin. Where webworms are rare, parsnips produce lower levels of xanthotoxin and bergapten in both the midwestern United States and Netherlands populations. However, the most striking result from this intercontinental comparison is that what is a ubiquitous two-species interaction in North America is in fact exceptional in Europe; webworms could more reliably be found infesting H. sphondylium even where P. sativa was available as well. This preference for H. sphondylium exists despite the comparatively high probability of parasitism associated with this host plant and may reflect the overall lower furanocoumarin content of H. sphondylium. The interaction of parsnip webworms and wild parsnips at home and away demonstrates clearly the potential for rapid contemporary evolution of chemical traits upon re-association with a coevolved enemy, a potential evolutionary outcome that should be considered in the design and implementation of future weed biological control programs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3070-3081
Number of pages12
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2006


  • Coevolution
  • Defense
  • Depressaria pastinacella
  • Furanocoumarin
  • Geographic mosaic
  • Heracleum
  • Insect-plant interaction
  • Pastinaca
  • Trophic complexity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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