Field of Science

To Make a Willow Weep

Pair of spotted willow leaf beetles Chrysomela vigintipunctata, copyright P. V. Romantsov.

As noted in an earlier post, the leaf beetles of the Chrysomelidae include some very attractive representatives. The two individuals in the photo above belong to the widespread genus Chrysomela, many species of which feed on leaves of members of the tree genera Salix, the willows, and Populus, the poplars. Some species can become numerous enough on their hosts to cause extensive defoliation, and the cottonwood leaf beetle Chrysomela scripta is regarded as a serious pest of trees such as the cottonwood Populus deltoides.

Mating pair of Chrysomela populi, copyright Beentree.

Chrysomela beetles that feed on willows are able to sequester salicin from the willow's leave and use it to secrete a defensive compound of their own, salicylaldehyde. In one European species, Chrysomela lapponica, distinct populations have been identified that feed respectively on willow or birch leaves. Experimental studies have shown that the birch- and willow-feeding populations are largely reproductively isolated from each other: either their inter-fertility is reduced, or hybrid larvae that differ in feeding preference from their mother will be laid on the wrong host tree and be unable to survive. As such, the populations can be recognised as either in the process of diverging into separate species, or as already distinct cryptic species. As birch does not contain salicin, birch-feeding C. lapponica do not produce the salicylaldehyde found in willow-feeding populations, and birch-feeders fed on willow leaves are unable to utilise salicin (Kirsch et al. 2011).

Female Chrysomela lapponica ovipositing on birch leaf, copyright Juergen Gross. As well as the variation in host plant described above, members of this species also vary widely in coloration, from red and black as in the photo to entirely black in some individuals.

As willow is most likely the ancestral food type for C. lapponica, how did some populations make the change to feeding on birch despite losing a significant factor in their own defenses by doing so? One possibility that has been suggested is that the change happened not despite the loss of salicylaldehyde, but because of it (Gross et al. 2004). While the salicylaldehyde acts as an effective defense against generalist predators, some specialist predators and parasitoids of the beetles seem to be directly attracted to it, using it as a marker to track down their target. Pressure from this angle might favour the spread of a population that does not produce the alluring salicylaldehyde.


Gross, J., N. E. Fatouros, S. Neuvonen & M. Hilker. 2004. The importance of specialist natural enemies for Chrysomela lapponica in pioneering a new host plant. Ecological Entomology 29: 584-593.

Kirsch, R., H. Vogel, A. Muck, K. Reichwald, J. M. Pasteels & W. Boland. 2011. Host plant shifts affect a major defense enzyme in Chrysomela lapponica. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 108 (12): 4897-4901.

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