How milkweed plants defend against monarch butterflies

Anurag looking at a monarch caterpillar on a milkweed plant.

The activities are as follows:

For millions of years, monarch butterflies have been antagonizing milkweed plants. Although adult monarchs drink nectar from flowers, their caterpillars only eat milkweed leaves, which harms the plants. This is an ecological interaction called herbivory. The only food for monarchs is milkweed leaves, meaning they have evolved to be highly specialized, picky eaters. But their food is not a passive victim. Like most other plants, milkweeds fight back with defenses against herbivory.

Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves. After eggs hatch, caterpillars start to feed and quickly meet the plant’s first defense. Milkweed leaves are covered in thousands of tiny hairs, called trichomes, that the caterpillar needs to shave off before they can take a bite. The next challenge happens when the caterpillar takes a bite of the leaf. They get a mouthful of latex, which is sticky like Elmer’s glue. The caterpillars have to be very careful in how they feed. They cut the veins in the leaf to drain out the latex before continuing to feed on the leaf. Even after monarch caterpillars make it past the trichomes and latex, there’s another defense they need to overcome. Milkweed leaves have chemical toxins called cardiac glycosides, which are poisonous to most animals. As they feed, monarchs eat some of this poison.

Anurag is a scientist who has long been fascinated by plants and their defenses. He thinks this comes from the fact that his mother was such an avid gardener. She would grow food, such as peppers, squashes, and tomatoes. He looks back and has memories that are associated with garden plants and their defenses. For example, he remembers eating a bitter cucumber as a kid and spitting it out. He also can still recall the bitter aroma on his hand after brushing against the sticky tomato leaves. And plants that are tough and stringy, like kale, are not as tasty to eat. These traits are examples of plant defenses in action, making them harder or less enjoyable to eat, reducing herbivory.

Anurag collecting data on milkweed plants.

Anurag first started studying milkweeds 20 years ago, based on a recommendation from a friend. His friend told him of the bitter, sticky, and furry leaves that were treasured by the monarch butterfly caterpillars. This led him to study the paradox of coevolution. The milkweed and monarch have such a tight relationship that over time, milkweeds have evolved multiple ways to defend themselves against their herbivores. In response, monarchs have evolved to overcome those defenses because they need to eat the milkweed. This arms race may continue to shift back and forth over the course of evolutionary time.

This back-and-forth battle between caterpillar and plant intrigued Anurag. He wanted to know whether milkweed’s defensive traits are still effective against monarchs, or have monarchs evolved in ways that make them unaffected by the defenses? Because each defense trait might be at a different phase in the coevolution process, perhaps some would be effective defenses to herbivory, but others would not be effective. He predicted that monarchs would be harmed by all three milkweed defense traits (trichomes, latex, and cardiac glycosides), but that some would cause more harm than others.

To test his ideas, Anurag and his collaborators grew monarch caterpillars on 24 different North American milkweed species. They put a single newly hatched caterpillar on each plant and had five replicate plants per milkweed species. They recorded each caterpillar’s growth over the course of 5 days to see how healthy it was. They also measured the amount of trichomes, latex, and cardiac glycosides in each plant to determine their level of defense. Once they had their data, they looked for a relationship between caterpillar growth and plant defense traits to determine which made the best plant defenses. The better the defense, the less caterpillars would grow.

Featured scientist: Anurag Agrawal (He/Him/His) from Cornell University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.5

Additional teacher resources related to this Data Nugget include:

  • Anurag has other examples, data, and related stories in his book: Monarchs and Milkweed, which is written for budding scientists and interested naturalists:
  • Students can learn more about Anurag, his research, and his lab at his website: which includes blog posts about monarch conservation, the community of insects on milkweed plants, videos of talks and presentations, and other things related to his research and teaching at Cornell University.
  • A scientific article based on this research: Agrawal, A. A., Fishbein, M., Jetter, R., Salminen, J. P., Goldstein, J. B., Freitag, A. E., & Sparks, J. P. (2009). Phylogenetic ecology of leaf surface traits in the milkweeds (Asclepias spp.): chemistry, ecophysiology, and insect behavior. New Phytologist183(3), 848-867.
  • Learn more about Anurag and his research in this YouTube video!

Where to find the hungry, hungry herbivores

Carina and some pokeweed plants in Tennessee.

The activities are as follows:

Éste Data Nugget también está disponible en Español:

When travelling to warm, tropical places you are exposed to greater risk of diseases like malaria, yellow fever, or dengue fever. The same pattern of risk is true for other species besides humans. For example, scientists have noticed that crops seem to have more problems with pests if they grow at lower latitudes (closer to the equator). Locations that are at lower latitudes have warm climates. We don’t know exactly why there are more pests in warmer places, but it could be because pests have a hard time surviving very cold winters. 

Carina is interested in figuring out more about this pest-y problem. She first got excited about plants in school, when she learned that they use photosynthesis to make their own food out of light, air, and water. She thought it was fascinating that plants have evolved so many different strategies to survive. Even though they don’t have brains, plants do have adaptations that help them compete for light and mate in many different habitats. Carina continues to learn more every day, and especially enjoys researching how plants defend themselves against herbivores, or animals that eat plants. Herbivores pose a challenge because plants can’t run away or hide! 

Carina studies ways wild plants can defend themselves against herbivores. What she learns in wild plants could give us ideas of how to help crops defend against pests too. Scientists aren’t sure why crops have more pest problems in warmer places, but it would help to understand if wild plants also have the same pattern. 

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) is a common wild plant that grows all over the eastern US. Pokeweed has beautiful pink stems and dark purple berries. In fact, the Declaration of Independence was written with ink made from pokeweed berry juice!

So Carina decided to travel all across the eastern United States to measure herbivory on pokeweed, a common wild plant there. Carina drove a lot for this project! In one summer, she visited ten patches of pokeweed spread out between Michigan and Florida. Carina thought that the pokeweed found at lower latitudes (Florida, 27° N) would have higher herbivory than pokeweed at northern latitudes (Michigan, 42° N) because pests may not be able to survive as well in places with harsh winters. 

At each of the ten sites, she marked five very young leaves on 30 to 40 plants. That equals over 1,500 leaves! She then came back six weeks later to measure how much the leaves were eaten as they grew into large, mature leaves. When leaves are young, they are more tender and can be more easily eaten by herbivores (that’s why we eat “baby spinach” salad). To measure herbivory she compared the area that was eaten to the total area of the leaf, and calculated the percent of the leaf area eaten by caterpillars, the main herbivores on pokeweed. She then averaged the percent eaten on leaves for each plant. Some plants died in those 6 weeks, so the sample size at the end of the study ranged from 4 to 37 depending on the site.

Featured scientist: Carina Baskett from Michigan State University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.4

There is one scientific paper associated with the research in this Data Nugget. The citation and link to the paper is below.

Baskett, C.A. and D.W. Schemske (2018) Latitudinal patterns of herbivore pressure in a temperate herb support the biotic interactions hypothesis. Ecology Letters 21(4):578-587.

Picky eaters: Dissecting poo to examine moose diets

Moose chomping on a forest plant

When you eat at a restaurant, do you always order your favorite meal? Or do you like to look at the menu and try something new? Humans have so many meal options that it can be hard to decide what to eat, but we also have preferences for certain food over others. Animals have fewer decisions to make. They have to choose from food options available in their environment. Do animals search for specific food types or eat any food they find?

Scientists who study the ecology of the remote Isle Royale National Park are interested in knowing more about how moose decide which plants to eat. Isle Royale is a large (44 miles long and 8 miles wide) island found within Lake Superior. On the island, wolves are the main predators of moose. The wolf and moose populations have been studied there for over 60 years, making it the longest continuous study of predator-prey dynamics.

In recent years, the wolf population struggled to rebound because there were very few adults reproducing. Without their natural predators, the moose population has increased dramatically, in 2000 there were approximately 500 moose, but since that time the population has grown to over 2,000 moose! Moose are browsers, meaning they eat leaves and needles, fruits, or twigs that are found on woody plants. Having too many moose on the island would take a toll on the island’s plant community. Bite by bite, moose may be chomping away at the forest and changing the Isle Royale ecosystem as we know it.

To try to fix this problem, the National Park Service is working to restore the wolf population by relocating adults from other Lake Superior packs to the island. However, this will take several years and in the meantime moose will continue to have an effect on the plant community. Scientists Sarah, John, and their colleagues realize how important it is to monitor which plants the moose are eating. The scientist team wanted to know whether moose simply eat the plants that they come across, or if they show preference for certain plants. 

Surveying woody plants in Isle Royale National Park

One thing that could affect moose food preference is the nutrition level of the different plants. In the winter, deciduous plants lose their leaves, unlike conifers that are green all year round. In the winter, moose end up eating the edges of twigs from deciduous plants, but can still eat needles of conifers. Needles are easier for moose to digest and have more nutrients than twigs so the scientists thought moose would seek out coniferous plants, like balsam fir and cedar, even if they were less common in the environment.

Starting in 2004, the scientist team selected 14 sites across the island and started collecting moose poop, also called fecal pellets, at the end of winter. Back in the lab, the fecal pellets were examined closely under a microscope to determine what the moose were eating. Many plants have identifiable differences in cellular structures, so the scientists were able to look at the magnified fragments and record how much balsam fir, cedar, and deciduous plants the moose had been eating. 

To understand preference, the scientists also needed to know which plants were in the area that the moose were living. They did plant surveys at the beginning and end of the study to estimate the percent of different woody plants that are in the forest. Because woody plants are long-living, the forest didn’t change too much from year to year. 

Once they had the forest plant surveys and the moose diets analyzed from the fecal pellets, they were able to analyze whether moose selectively eat. If a moose was randomly eating the plant types that it came across, it would have similar amounts of plants in its diet than what is found in the forest. If a moose shows preferencefor a plant type, it would have a higher percent of that food in their diet than what is found in the forest. Moose could also be avoiding certain food types, which would be when they have a lower percent of a plant type in its diet than in the environment.

Featured scientist: Sarah Hoy, John Vucetich and John Henderson from Michigan Technological University.Support for this lesson was provided by the National Park Service with funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.1

Additional teacher resources related to this Data Nugget:

The study and results described in this Data Nugget have been published. If students are curious to know more about the study design and how sites were selected, there is an approachable methods section available in the article:

  • Hoy, S.R., Vucetich, J.A., Liu, R., DeAngelis, D.L., Peterson, R.O., Vucetich, L.M., & Henderson, J.J. 2019. Negative frequency-dependent foraging behavior in a generalist herbivore (Alces alces) and its stabilizing influence on food-web dynamics. Journal of Animal Ecology.

There have been several news stories about this research:

Website with more information on the Isle Royale Wolf-Moose Study, including additional datasets to examine with students.

Testing the tolerance of invasive plants

Casey out in the field.

The activities are as follows:

Casey is a biologist who grew up with dogs as pets. His dogs were all the same species and had some things in common – they all had a tail, ears, and fur. But, each dog also had its own unique appearance – tail length, ear shape, and fur color. These things are called traits. Casey became interested in how slight differences in traits make individuals unique. 

As Casey observed in dogs, not all individuals in the same species are exactly alike. This is also true in plants. When we look closely at individual plants of the same species, we often see that each is slightly different from the next. Some grow faster. Some have more leaves than others. Some are better at defending themselves against herbivoresthat might eat them. 

People move species around the globe, and some of these species cause problems where they are introduced. These trouble-making species are called invasive species. Casey wanted to apply what he knew about trait differences to the environment around him, so he chose to study invasive plants and their traits. He wants to know what it is about invasive species that make them able to invade. Casey thought that maybe certain traits cause invasive species to be more troublesome than others. The individual plants that have invaded other parts of the world might have different traits that made them successful in that environment. Plants in their new invasive range might be slightly different than plants in the native range where they came from.  

Along with other members of his lab, Casey is studying an invasive plant species called burr clover. The lab collected seeds of burr clover from all different parts of the world. Some of the seeds came from the native range around the Mediterranean Sea (e.g. Italy, France, and Morocco) and some came from areas where they are invasive (e.g. Japan, Brazil, and the United States). The plants from the invasive range have already proven that they can invade new areas. Studying traits in native and invasive ranges would allow Casey to learn more about how those individuals invaded in the first place. Because Casey thought trait differences might have caused certain individuals of burr clover to become invasive, he predicted that individuals from the invasive range would have different traits than those from the native range. 

Casey’s field site where he studies Burr Clover

The lab decided to look at one trait in particular – how much an individual plant was affected by herbivores, which is called tolerance. The most tolerant individuals can still grow and produce fruits, even when herbivores eat a lot of their tissue. Casey thought that individuals from the invasive range would be more tolerant than individuals from the native range. One reason the invading individuals may have been successful is that they were more tolerant of herbivores in their new environment.The fruits contain seeds that make new plants, so plants that make more fruits can invade more easily. If individuals from the invasive range can make more fruits, even when herbivores are around, then they may reproduce and spread more quickly. 

So, Casey and his lab collected seeds from 22 individual plants from the native range and 22 individual plants from the invasive range. Each plant produces many seeds, so they collected several seeds from each individual. They created 24 2×2-meter plots in a field in California. Into each plot they planted 2-4 seeds from each individual plant and the seeds were planted in a random order in each plot. In all, there were 3,349 plants! In half of the plots, they removed any insects that might eat the plants. To do this they randomly chose half of the plots and sprayed them with insecticide, which kills insects. They sprayed the other half of the plots with water as a control. They wanted to know how many fruits were made by plants under good conditions so they could compare to plants that are being eaten by herbivores. After the plants grew all spring, they measured how many small, spiky fruits each plant produced. They compared how many fruits each plant produced in the plots with insects and the plots without insects. 

Featured scientist: Casey terHorst from California State University, Northridge

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.3

Won’t you be my urchin?

The vegetarian sea urchin Diadema antillarum.

The vegetarian sea urchin Diadema antillarum.

The activities are as follows:

Éste Data Nugget también está disponible en Español:

Imagine you are snorkeling on a coral reef where you can see many species living together. Some animals, like sharks, are predators that eat other animals. Other species, like anemones and the fish that live in them, are mutualists and protect each other from predators. There are also herbivores, like urchins, that eat plants and algae on the reef. All of these species, and many more, need the coral reef to survive.

Experimental setup with tiles in bins. Some bins have sea urchins and some do not.

Experimental setup with tiles in bins. Some bins have sea urchins and some do not.

Corals are the animals that build coral reefs. They are very sensitive and can be hurt by human activity, like boating and pollution. Corals reef ecosystems are also in danger from warming waters due to climate change. Sadly, today many coral reefs around the world are dying because the places they grow are changing. Sarah is a marine biologist who is determined to figure out ways to save coral reefs. Sarah wants to understand how to help the dying corals so they can keep building the important and diverse coral reef habitats.

Corals compete with large types of algae, like seaweed, for space to grow on the reef. Corals are picky and only like to live in certain places. If there is too much algae, corals will have no place to attach and grow. Sea urchins are important herbivores and one of the species that like to eat algae. Sarah thought that when urchins are present on the reef, corals will have less competition from algae for space, and thus more room to grow. Maybe adding urchins to a coral reef is a way to help corals!

To test her idea Sarah set up an experiment. She set 8 bins out on the reef. Into half of the bins, Sarah added urchins. Into the other half she left without urchins as a control. Sarah put tiles into all of the bins. Tiles gave an empty space for coral and algae to compete and grow. After a few months, Sarah looked at the tiles. She counted how many corals were growing on each tile. Sarah predicted that more corals would grow on the tiles in bins with sea urchins compared to the control bins with no sea urchins.

B. Photograph of Agaricia juvenile on experimental substratum. C. Photograph of Porites juvenile on experimental substratum

B. Photograph of coral species Agaricia juvenile on experimental tile. C. Photograph of coral species Porites juvenile on experimental tile.

Featured scientist: Sarah W. Davies from University of Texas at Austin

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 6.5

There is one scientific paper associated with the research in this Data Nugget. The citation and PDF of the paper is below.

Davies SW, MV Matz, PD Vize (2013) Ecological Complexity of Coral Recruitment Processes: Effects of Invertebrate Herbivores on Coral Recruitment and Growth Depends Upon Substratum Properties and Coral Species. PLOS ONE 8(9):e72830

After students have completed the Data Nugget, you can have them discuss the management implications of this research. Watch the news story below and have students consider how urchins can be used as a management tool to help restore coral reefs!







Do invasive species escape their enemies?

One of the invasive plants found in the experiment, Dianthus armeria

One of the invasive plants found in the experiment, Dianthus armeria

The activities are as follows:

Invasive species, like zebra mussels and garlic mustard, are species that have been introduced by humans to a new area. Where they invade they cause harm. For example, invasive species outcompete native species and reduce diversity, damage habitats, and interfere with human interests. Damage from invasive species costs the United States over $100 billion per year.

Scientists want to know, what makes an invasive species become such a problem once it is introduced? Is there something that is different for an invasive species compared to native species that have not been moved to a new area? Many things change for an invasive species when it is introduced somewhere new. For example, a plant that is moved across oceans may not bring enemies (like disease, predators, and herbivores) along for the ride. Now that the plant is in a new area with no enemies, it may do very well and become invasive.


Scientists at Michigan State University wanted to test whether invasive species are successful because they have escaped their enemies. They predicted invasive species would get less damage from enemies, compared to native species that still live near to their enemies. If native plants have tons of insects that can eat them, while an invasive plant has few or none, this would support enemy escape explaining invasiveness. However, if researchers find that native and invasive species have the same levels of herbivory, this would no support enemy escape. To test this hypothesis, a lab collected data on invasive and native plant species in Kalamazoo County. They measured how many insects were found on each species of plant, and the percent of leaves that had been damaged by insect herbivores. The data they collected is found below and can be used to test whether invasive plants are successful because they get less damage from insects compared to native plants.

Featured scientist: Elizabeth Schultheis from Michigan State University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 11.3

  • For a lesson plan on the Enemy Release Hypothesis, click here.
  • For a great scientific paper discussing the Enemy Release Hypothesis, click here.
  • The Denver Museum of Nature and Science has a short video giving background on invasive species, here

Do insects prefer local or foreign foods?

One of the invasive plants found in the experiment, Centaurea stoebe.

One of the invasive plants found in the experiment, Centaurea stoebe.

The activities are as follows:

Insects that feed on plants, called herbivores, can have big effects on how plants grow. Herbivory can change the size and shape of plants, the number of flowers and seeds, and even which plant species can survive in a habitat. A plant with leaves eaten by insect herbivores will likely do worse than a plant that is not eaten.

Plants that naturally grow in an area without human interference are called native plants. When a plant is moved by humans to a new area and lives and grows outside of its natural range, it is called an exotic plant. Sometimes exotic plants become invasive, meaning they grow large and fast, take over habitats, and push out native species. What determines if an exotic species will become invasive? Scientists are very interested in this question. Understanding what makes a species become invasive could help control invasions already underway and prevent new ones in the future.

Because herbivory affects how big and fast a plant can grow, local herbivores may determine if an exotic plant thrives in its new habitat and becomes invasive. Elizabeth, a plant biologist, is fascinated by invasive species and wanted to know why they are able to grow bigger and faster than native and other exotic species. One possibility, she thought, is that invasive species are not recognized by the local insect herbivores as good food sources and thus get less damage from the insects. Escaping herbivory could allow invasive species to grow more and may explain how they become invasive.

To test this hypothesis, Elizabeth planted 25 native, 25 exotic, and 11 invasive species in a field in Michigan. This field was already full of many plants and had many insect herbivores. The experimental plants grew from 2011 to 2013. Each year, Elizabeth measured herbivory on 10 individuals of each of the 61 species, for a total of 610 plants. To measure herbivory, she looked at the leaves on each plant and determined how much of each leaf was eaten by herbivores. She then compared the area that was eaten to the total area of the leaf and calculated the proportion leaf area eaten by herbivores. Elizabeth predicted that invasive species would have a lower proportion of leaf area eaten compared to native and noninvasive exotic plants.


Featured scientist: Elizabeth Schultheis from Michigan State University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.9

There is one scientific paper associated with the data in this Data Nugget. The citation and PDF of the paper is below, as well as a link to access the full dataset from the study:

For two lesson plans covering the Enemy Release Hypothesis, click here and here. For another great paper discussing the Enemy Release Hypothesis, click here.

Aerial view of the experiments discussed in this activity:

ERH Field site 2