In response to herbivore attack, plants mobilize chemical defenses and release distinct bouquets of volatiles. Aboveground herbivores are known to use changes in leaf volatile patterns to make foraging decisions, but it remains unclear whether belowground herbivores also use volatiles to select suitable host plants. We therefore investigated how above- and belowground infestation affects the performance of the root feeder Diabrotica virgifera virgifera, and whether the larvae of this specialized beetle are able to use volatile cues to assess from a distance whether a potential host plant is already under herbivore attack. Diabrotica virgifera larvae showed stronger growth on roots previously attacked by conspecific larvae, but performed more poorly on roots of plants whose leaves had been attacked by larvae of the moth Spodoptera littoralis. Fittingly, D. virgifera larvae were attracted to plants that were infested with conspecifics, whereas they avoided plants that were attacked by S. littoralis. We identified (E)-β-caryophyllene, which is induced by D. virgifera, and ethylene, which is suppressed by S. littoralis, as two signals used by D. virgifera larvae to locate plants that are most suitable for their development. Our study demonstrates that soil-dwelling insects can use herbivore-induced changes in root volatile emissions to identify suitable host plants.
© 2012 The Authors. New Phytologist © 2012 New Phytologist Trust.