The effect of aphids in parasitoid-caterpillar-plant interactions

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Virginia Tech


The ecology and evolution of a species is often considered only within the context of pairwise interactions even though a species' distribution and abundance may be determined by interactions with many species within and between trophic levels. Multiple herbivores often share the same host and may interact indirectly by altering the relationships between herbivores, their host plants and their parasitoids. However, the relationships between parasitoids and herbivore hosts have typically been studied in isolation of other herbivore species. I examined how the outcomes of species interactions change when multiple relationships are considered.

Chapter 1 examined the potentially conflicting selection pressures Manduca sexta exerts on Nicotiana tabacum (tobacco), since M. sexta has pollinating adults but herbivorous larvae. I demonstrated that high nectar amino acids do not affect floral visitation, but increased oviposition of herbivores on leaves. Thus, the relative costs and benefits of nectar rewards may depend on the community of pollinators and their life histories.

In the remaining chapters I examined how feeding on tobacco by the aphid Myzus persicae altered the interactions between a parasitoid (Cotesia congregata) and its hornworm host (M. sexta). Chapter 2 demonstrated that aphids reduced hornworm abundance and parasitism. Changes in hornworm abundance were not due to density-dependent changes in moth oviposition, but the proportion of caterpillars attacked by parasitoids was inversely density dependent with hornworm density. Chapter 3 examined whether changes in hornworm abundance and parasitism reflected aphid-induced changes in host plant quality or volatile emissions. Aphids increased hornworm mortality, did not affect parasitoid performance, and increased parasitoid search time. In combination with Chapter 2, results suggest that aphids can mediate parasitoid-caterpillar interactions through changes in host plants that reduce hornworm survival and alter parasitoid behavior. Chapter 4 addressed how the outcome of interactions that are altered by aphids changed with spatial scale, and found no effect spatial scale on hornworm abundance and parasitism. In this system, aphids alter parasitoid-caterpillar interactions through changes in plant quality that reduce hornworm performance and abundance, and in turn, influence parasitoid attack. This work demonstrates that the outcome of multispecies interactions may not be predictable from pairwise interactions.



Nicotiana tabacum, tri-trophic interactions, parasitoids, herbivores, Manduca sexta, Cotesia congregata