Plant invasions represent ecological opportunities for herbivorous insects able to exploit novel host plants. The availability of new hosts and rapid adaptations may lead to host race formation and ultimately speciation. We studied potential host race formation in the water lily leaf beetle, Galerucella nymphaeae, in response to invasion by water chestnut, Trapa nutans, in eastern North America. This leaf beetle is well suited for such studies because previous work showed that different herbivore populations follow different “evolutionary pathways” and specialize locally in response to differences in habitat preferences and host plant availability. We compared host preference and performance of G. nymphaeae offspring originating from T. nutans and offspring of individuals originating from an ancestral host Nuphar lutea, yellow water lily, on T. natans and three native hosts (N. lutea, Nympheae odorata, and Brasenia schreberi). Regardless of origin (Trapa or Nuphar), adults strongly preferred their native host, N. lutea, over T. natans. Although laboratory survival rates (larva to pupa) were extremely high (80%) regardless of origin or host offered, survival rates in a common garden were greatly reduced, particularly for T. natans (24%) and to a lesser extent on N. lutea (54%), regardless of beetle origin. Larval drowning during more frequent leaf changes when developing on small Trapa leaves seems to be responsible for this difference. Preference of females for N. lutea is beneficial considering the much higher larval survival on the ancestral host. Abundant T. natans where the plant is invasive provides an alternative food source that beetles can use after egg/larval loads on their preferred host reach carrying capacity, but this utilization comes at a cost of high larval mortality.
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