Do caterpillars secrete "oral secretions"?

Michelle Peiffer, Gary W. Felton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

69 Scopus citations


The oral secretions or regurgitant of caterpillars contain potent elicitors of plant induced responses. These elicitors are recognized by host plants to differentiate between simple mechanical injury and the presence of herbivores. In some cases, this level of recognition is highly specific. Despite the in-depth chemical characterization of these elicitors, little is known about the amounts delivered in regurgitant during feeding. In this study, we use a fluorescent dye to label regurgitant in order to visualize caterpillar regurgitation during feeding. The procedure is highly sensitive and allows us to visualize nanoliter amounts of regurgitant. We examined the propensity of larval Helicoverpa zea, Heliothis virescens, Spodoptera exigua, Spodoptera frugiperda, and Manduca sexta to regurgitate on various host plants. These species were selected because they have been among the most intensely studied in terms of elicitors. Our results indicate that most larvae did not regurgitate following a brief feeding bout (∼10 min) during which they ate ca. 0.40 cm2 of leaf. When larvae did regurgitate, it was typically less than 10 nl. This is several orders of magnitude less than is typically used in most studies on oral secretions. The frequency of regurgitation appears to vary depending upon the host plant. Larval H. zea are less likely to regurgitate when feeding on tomato leaves compared to corn mid-whorl tissue. Our results have importance in understanding the role of oral secretions in plant recognition of herbivory. Because caterpillars did not routinely regurgitate during feeding, it is likely that they avoid the elicitation of some plant defensive responses during most feeding bouts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)326-335
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Chemical Ecology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2009

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Biochemistry


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