Young aphids avoid erroneous dropping when evading mammalian herbivores by combining input from two sensory modalities

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Mammalian herbivores may incidentally ingest plant-dwelling insects while foraging. Adult pea aphids (Acyrthosiphon pisum) avoid this danger by dropping off their host plant after sensing the herbivore's warm and humid breath and the vibrations it causes while feeding. Aphid nymphs may also drop (to escape insect enemies), but because of their slow movement, have a lower chance of finding a new plant. We compared dropping rates of first-instar nymphs with those of adults, after exposing pea aphids to different combinations of simulated mammalian breath and vibrations. We hypothesized that nymphs would compensate for the greater risk they face on the ground by interpreting more conservatively the mammalian herbivore cues they perceive. Most adults dropped in response to breath alone, but nymphs rarely did so. Breath stimulus accompanied by one concurrent vibrational stimulus, caused a minor rise in adult dropping rates. Adding a second vibration during breath had no additional effect on adults. The nymphs, however, relied on a combination of the two types of stimuli, with a threefold increase in dropping rates when the breath was accompanied by one vibration, and a further doubling of dropping rates when the second vibration was added. The age-specificity of the aphids' herbivore detection mechanism is probably an adaptation to the different cost of dropping for the different age groups. Relying on a combination of stimuli from two sensory modalities enables the vulnerable nymphs to avoid costly mistakes. Our findings emphasize the importance of the direct trophic effect of mammalian herbivory for plant-dwelling insects.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere32706
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number4
StatePublished - 9 Apr 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • General


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