Traffic influences nutritional quality of roadside plants for monarch caterpillars

Timothy S. Mitchell, Lauren Agnew, Rebecca Meyer, Kristin L. Sikkink, Karen S. Oberhauser, Elizabeth T. Borer, Emilie C. Snell-Rood

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


Roadside habitats are increasingly being targeted for restoration and conservation. Roadside habitats often exhibit altered soil and plant chemistry due to pollution from maintenance (e.g. de-icing salt), car deterioration, and exhaust. Roadside plants may attract animals due to elevated levels of sodium or nitrogen, but high concentrations of heavy metals and sodium can be toxic, potentially setting an ecological trap. In this study, we determine how roads influence the chemistry of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) as it is the primary roadside host plant for the declining monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) in the eastern United States. Even though road salt is applied during the winter, we detect enhanced sodium along roads the following growing season. Road salts increase soil sodium, which in turn elevates host-plant foliar sodium (occasionally to toxic levels in <10% of plants) and sodium content in monarch caterpillars feeding on these plants. Sodium levels of milkweed leaves are highest close to the edge of busy roads. Some heavy metals (lead, zinc) are also elevated in roadside soils or plants. Nitrogen content was affected by adjacent agricultural use, but not traffic volume or proximity to a road. Other potential road pollutants (e.g. nickel) were not elevated in soil or plants. Despite a clear signature of road pollution in the chemistry of milkweed, most plants are likely still suitable for developing monarchs. Nonetheless, restoration investments in snowy regions should prioritize sites with lower-traffic density that are further from the road edge to minimize toxic impacts of high sodium. To extend this research to other insects of conservation concern, future work should characterize the nutritional quality of nectar, pollen, and other species of host-plants in roadside habitats.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number138045
JournalScience of the Total Environment
StatePublished - Jul 1 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Funding was provided by the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund as recommended by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources; the funders had no involvement in design, writing, interpretation, or publication of this research. The Minnesota Department of Transportation provided permits to access road right-of-ways and guidance with roadside sampling. Katie Johnston, Laura Wagner, and Andres Rivera Cruz provided assistance with sample processing. We thank the lab of N.A. Jelinski for performing soil particle size analysis, the University of Minnesota's Research Analytical Lab for the ICP analyses, and A.J. Porath-Krause for assistance with the CN Nutrient Analyzer.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 Elsevier B.V.


  • Ecological trap
  • Heavy metals
  • Herbivory
  • Nitrogen
  • Pollinators
  • Right-of-way
  • Sodium
  • Verge

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article


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