Anthropogenic changes in sodium affect neural and muscle development in butterflies

Emilie Snell-Rood, Anne Espeset, Christopher J. Boser, William A. White, Rhea Smykalski

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

67 Scopus citations


The development of organisms is changing drastically because of anthropogenic changes in once-limited nutrients. Although the importance of changing macronutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, is well-established, it is less clear how anthropogenic changes in micronutrients will affect organismal development, potentially changing dynamics of selection. We use butterflies as a study system to test whether changes in sodium availability due to road salt runoff have significant effects on the development of sodium-limited traits, such as neural and muscle tissue. We first document how road salt runoff can elevate sodium concentrations in the tissue of some plant groups by 1.5-30 times. Using monarch butterflies reared on roadside- and prairie-collected milkweed, we then show that road salt runoff can result in increased muscle mass (in males) and neural investment (in females). Finally, we use an artificial diet manipulation in cabbage white butterflies to show that variation in sodium chloride per se positively affects male flight muscle and female brain size. Variation in sodium not only has different effects depending on sex, but also can have opposing effects on the same tissue: across both species, males increase investment in flight muscle with increasing sodium, whereas females show the opposite pattern. Taken together, our results show that anthropogenic changes in sodium availability can affect the development of traits in roadside-feeding herbivores. This research suggests that changing micronutrient availability could alter selection on foraging behavior for some roadside-developing invertebrates.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)10221-10226
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number28
StatePublished - Jul 15 2014


  • Danaus plexippus
  • Ecological stoichiometry
  • Nutritional ecology
  • Pieris rapae


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