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Road salt reshapes butterfly form: anti-ice treatments affect monarchs' muscles, brains.

Salting roads in winter can tweak the physiques of the next summer's butterflies.

Milkweeds and oaks, plants that caterpillars graze on, collected from alongside a country road carried higher sodium concentrations than the same species growing at least 100 meters from the splash and drift of deicing salt, says Emilie Snell-Rood of the University of Minnesota in St. Paul.

Monarch caterpillars (Danaus plexippus) raised on the sodium-boosted plants grew into males with extra thoracic muscle and females with bigger eyes (probably a sign of bigger brains) than butterflies reared on the more distant foliage, Snell-Rood and her colleagues found. Another butterfly species echoed these his-and-hers effects when reared on a sodium-boosted lab diet, researchers report June 9 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

So is road salt good for butterflies? "I do not want that to be the take-home message," Snell-Rood says. Instead, she says, the study demonstrates for the first time that road salt can alter how animals develop. But too little is known to judge whether the effects of those alterations are harmful or beneficial. Her back-roads results, for example, might not apply in the supersalted zones of bigger highways.

"I see this paper as both exciting and worrying," says Nathan Morehouse of the University of Pittsburgh, who has studied diet's effects on butterflies. "This really opens up a broader palette of human influences than we typically consider important, at least for animal nutrition."

People may try to eat less sodium, but for many animals it's in short supply. "It's driven the evolution of really weird foraging behaviors" such as eating dirt, Snell-Rood says. Butterflies crowding to sip from puddles or alighting on another animal's face to drink tears may be feasting on sodium (SN Online: 5/1/14).

The idea of studying the effects of road salt on butterflies came to Snell-Rood when she moved to Minnesota in 2011. Earlier work on road salt had focused on different issues, such as behavior. Studies suggested that the roadside sodium bonanza affects ant foraging and draws moose nearer to highways, an unfortunate development if the salty foliage lures more moose to bumble into cars.

How much, if any, sodium from road salt ends up in plant tissues varies massively by species, Snell-Rood found. A kind of panic grass and a wild mustard called hoary alyssum didn't appear to pick up any extra sodium. But roadside Northern pin oaks had about 50 percent more sodium than distant oaks, and milkweeds, the main food for monarch butterfly caterpillars, could carry 30 times as much sodium as their kin that grow far from roads.

The plants' leaves were also dosed and begrimed with other substances that splashed, seeped or blew off the roads. To isolate effects of salt, Snell-Rood and colleagues followed up their monarch study with a test of cabbage white butterflies (Pieris rapae), which cooperate in the lab by growing on a highly controllable artificial diet. Changing only the sodium in the diet produced the same kinds of effects that the researchers had seen in the monarchs.

At a sodium dosage of about 3,000 parts per million, higher than average for roadside milkweeds, male cabbage whites matured into butterflies with about 11 percent more thoracic protein (indicating more muscle) than their counterparts raised at the low end of wild sodium concentrations, about 400 ppm. And the female cabbage whites raised on more sodium had about 20 percent bigger brains.

The sex differences surprised Morehouse, who is working with Snell-Rood on another project and was not involved in the new study. The butterfly sex differences may reflect the divergent priorities of the sexes. Male monarchs and cabbage whites both vie for mates in what's called scramble competition, essentially a free-for-all race among males. Stronger thoracic muscles could mean males can outfly the competition.

Females' priority, Snell-Rood says, is finding quality host plants for laying eggs. A butterfly's brain is about 75 percent devoted to vision, so bigger brains may improve butterfly botanizing.

Snell-Rood tried to investigate effects of higher plant sodium concentrations, but not enough of the insects survived. And even for modest levels, the long-term effects are "very poorly understood," says Stuart Findlay of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y. Overall, the biggest question about road salt treatments, he says, is their persistence in the environment.

Caption: Monarch butterflies showed physiological effects of road salting when caterpillars, like the one shown here on a milkweed, fed on plants that picked up extra sodium.

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Title Annotation:LIFE & EVOLUTION
Author:Milius, Susan
Publication:Science News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 12, 2014
Words:762
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