Chronicling a war of beetle vs. leaf

A rare meshing of family trees may reveal an ancient arms race between plants that deploy poisons and the beetles that deploy metabolic or behavioral countermeasures so they can eat the leaves anyway.

BOMB SQUAD. A beetle larva takes about an hour to nibble and defuse a long leaf tube that holds pressurized toxins. L. Venable/PNAS

It’s been tricky to find evidence that such ploys coevolved in any species of plants and their pests, says Judith X. Becerra of the University of Arizona in Tucson. That’s because it’s necessary to determine that both sides in a presumed arms race rolled out a weapon and countermeasure at the same time in evolutionary history.

In the October 28 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Becerra says she’s found such evidence. She analyzed DNA to figure out evolutionary lineages for Bursera plants and the Blepharida beetles whose larvae feast on the plants’ leaves. Some Burseras defend themselves with chemical cocktails or toxins that squirt out of leaves under attack.

In the family trees of beetles and plants that Becerra constructed, there are species from both the New and Old Worlds. That means that certain lineages diverged at least 95 million years ago, when Africa and South America split. With that timing, and the age of a Bursera fossil, Becerra used models of evolutionary change to date critical branchings within the Bursera and Blepharida lineages.

Dates for the advent of beetles and plants with certain antagonistic traits matched. For example, Becerra found, squirting Bursera lineages arose simultaneously with beetles whose larvae nip the high-pressure leaf channels and defuse them.


If you have a comment on this article that you would like considered for publication in Science News, send it to Please include your name and location.

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.