Insects Can Count: Sensory Basis of Host Discrimination in Parasitoid Wasps Revealed

Ruschioni, S.; Loon, J.J.A. van; Smid, H.M.; Lenteren, J.C. van


The solitary parasitoid Leptopilina heterotoma is one of the best studied organisms concerning the ecology, behaviour and physiology of host discrimination. Behavioural evidence shows that L. heterotoma uses its ovipositor to discriminate not only between parasitized and unparasitized Drosophila melanogaster larvae, but also to discriminate between hosts with different numbers of parasitoid eggs. The existing knowledge about how and when the parasitoid marks the host motivated us to unravel the chemosensory basis of host discrimination by L. heterotoma that allows it to choose the “best” host available. In this paper we report on electrophysiological recordings of multi-neural responses from the single taste sensillum on the tip of the unpaired ovipositor valve. We stimulated this sensillum with haemolymph of unparasitized, one-time-parasitized and two-times-parasitized Drosophila larvae. We demonstrate for the first time that quantitative characteristics of the neural responses to these haemolymph samples differed significantly, implying that host discrimination is encoded by taste receptor neurons in the multi-neuron coeloconic ovipositor sensillum. The activity of three of the six neurons present in the sensillum suffices for host discrimination and support the hypothesis that L. heterotoma females employ an ensemble code of parasitization status of the host.