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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1995 Jan 3;92(1):50-5.

The chemistry of sexual selection.

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Cornell Institute for Research in Chemical Ecology, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853.


The moth Utetheisa ornatrix (Lepidoptera: Arctiidae) is protected against predation by pyrrolizidine alkaloids that it sequesters as a larva from its foodplants. At mating, the male transfers alkaloid to the female with the spermatophore, a gift that the female supplements with alkaloid of her own and transmits to the eggs. Eggs are protected as a result. The male produces a pheromone, hydroxydanaidal, that he derives from the alkaloid and emits from a pair of extrusible brushes (coremata) during precopulatory interaction with the female. Males rendered experimentally alkaloid-free fail to produce the pheromone and are less successful in courtship. The male produces the pheromone in proportion both to his alkaloid load and to the amount of alkaloid he transfers to the female. The pheromone could thus serve as an indication of male "worth" and provide a basis for female choice. Utetheisa females are promiscuous and therefore are able to accrue multiple nuptial gifts (alkaloid and nutrient, both transmitted with the spermatophore). They use sperm selectively, favoring those of larger males. Larger males in nature are also richer in alkaloid. Females therefore reinforce after copulation the choice mechanism they already exercise during courtship.

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