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Host location behaviour in the desert caterpillar, Heliothis punctifera

Cunningham, John Paul, Lange, Corinna L., Walter, Gimme H., Zalucki, Myron P.
Entomologia experimentalis et applicata 2011 v.141 no.1 pp. 1-7
Heliothis, Senecio, adults, deserts, ecology, eggs, empirical research, foraging, hosts, immatures, insect larvae, moths, sand, Australia
The host location behaviour of foraging caterpillars has received little attention, despite the wealth of theoretical and empirical studies that have been directed at this behavioural trait in adult Lepidoptera. Here, we study caterpillars of the moth Heliothis punctifera Walker (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae), which inhabits the arid inland desert areas of Australia. Caterpillars of this species consume many flowerheads before completing development and can be observed moving across the sand in search of new hosts. Consequently, if host location behaviour favours attraction to certain plant species, it might be expected to influence the distribution and abundance of caterpillars in the field. We present field data showing that H. punctifera caterpillars are unevenly distributed throughout mixed patches of two of its host species, with a higher abundance on Senecio gregorii F. Muell., the annual yellow top, compared to Myriocephalus stuartii (F. Muell. & Sond.) Benth., the poached egg daisy (both Asteraceae). Using laboratory studies, we test whether this distribution may, in part, be due to host location behaviour of caterpillars. Our results show that caterpillars exhibit a preference for locating S. gregorii in their pre‐ and post‐contact foraging behaviour. In addition, our results provide evidence that feeding history plays a role in host location behaviour in this insect. We propose that key features of the desert environment and the ecology of H. punctifera would favour adaptations to host location behaviour by immatures.