Thursday, 14 July 2011

Poisonous bug babies cluster together

ResearchBlogging.orgThese newborn green shieldbugs, Palomena prasina, look most unlike adults. They have a bright black-red warning colouration in their first instar, for a few days they cluster tightly together on top of their egg shells. After moulting into their second instar they change colour to green and black and they disperse away from their siblings. All shieldbugs, including nymphs have stink glands between the first and second pair of legs. If handled roughly they can release repellent chemicals and they are often brightly marked. But why do these bugs cluster together?
 The contrasting black and yellow or black and red patterns of Cinnabar mothsladybirds, Burnet moths, bumblebees and wasps are visual signals to potential predators indicating that the animal is distasteful, poisonous or dangerous in some way. The predator, having had a nasty encounter with the aposematic organism learns to avoid it. But how does does aposematism evolve in the first place? You would think that the first aposematic individual either dies or is injured in the process, so it cannot be though natural selection, right? One possibility, first suggested by Sir Ronald Fisher in 1958 is aggregation of related aposematic organisms:
For, although with the adult insect the effect of increased distastefulness upon the actions of the predator will be merely to make that individual predator avoid all members of the persecuted species, and so, unless the individual attacked possibly survives, to confer no advantage upon its genotype, with gregarious larvae the effect will certainly be to give the increased protection especially to one particular group of larvae, probably brothers and sisters of the individual attacked. The selective potency of the avoidance of brothers will of course be only half as great as if the individual itself were protected; against this is to be set the fact that it applies to the whole of a possibly numerous brood
Fisher's hypothesis of kin selected aposematism has been questioned recently. Although aposematic organisms tend to be gregarious, phylogenetic analysis suggest that aposematism evolved before gregariousness, so aposematism makes gregariousness easier to evolve, and not the other way round.
 Birgitta Sillen-Tullberg carried out some elegant experiments showing that aposematism can give direct benefits to the individual, and that kin selection is unnecessary. She presented hand reared Great Tits (Parus major) with two colour forms of the same bug species (Lygaeus equestris), one grey and black (cryptic), and the other - the common form-  red and black (aposematic). A group of tits was presented with cryptic prey and another group with aposematic prey in 11 trials per bird. Great Tits learned to avoid both cryptic and aposematic prey - remember both are equally distasteful - but attacked cryptic prey more readily from the first trial.

In addition, when attacked, aposematic prey survived more, indicating that the tits were more wary when attacking it.
Being grouped, though, can confer further advantages. Gabriella Gamberale and Birgitta Tullberg carried out experiments testing the effect of grouped versus solitary prey - bugs, Spilostethus pandurus - on learning avoidance by predators - chicks in their experiments. Chicks learn to avoid aposematic shieldbugs in fewer predation attempts, and were less likely to attack twice they are aggregated than if the prey is solitary. They concluded that gregarious aposematic prey are a more effective signal for the chicks to learn, the reasons why this could be are still unclear.

Fisher, Ronald A. (1958). The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection Dover Publications, Inc. Other: 0-486-60466-7
Sillen-Tullberg, B. (1985). Higher survival of an aposematic than of a cryptic form of a distasteful bug. Oecologia, 67 (3), 411-415 DOI: 10.1007/BF00384948
Gamberale, Gabriella, & Tullberg, Birgitta S. (1996). Evidence for a more effective signal in aggregated aposematic prey. Animal Behaviour, 52 (3), 597-601 DOI: 10.1006/anbe.1996.0200


Unknown said...

Hi, I observed a group of at least 11 adults and 4 'final instar' common green shieldbugs yesterday, all relatively close together (within 1.5m from each other) on bramble in a hedge. The green adults are camouflaged rather then aposemetic I'd say. What's the advantage/explanation of this 'gregarious' life style for them here? PS love your website

Africa Gomez said...

Thank you for your comment Anneke. Green Shielbugs like each other company, I wonder if survival is better when overwintering in clusters, regardless of predation.

RayHolden said...

As of course do Woundwort Shieldbugs (who are hardly in camo colours), but I can't offhand think of others do so all the way into adulthood.
Picromerus bidens stay together until final instar stage - as may do Troilus Luridus - but that may relate to their hunting as a pack :)