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In many insect species olfaction is a key sensory modality. However, examination of the chemical ecology of insects has focussed up to now on insects living above ground. Evidence for behavioral responses to chemical cues in the soil other than CO(2) is scarce and the role played by olfaction in the process of finding host roots below ground is not yet understood. The question of whether soil-dwelling beetle larvae can smell their host plant roots has been under debate, but proof is as yet lacking that olfactory perception of volatile compounds released by damaged host plants, as is known for insects living above ground, occurs. Here we show that soil-dwelling larvae of Melolontha hippocastani are well equipped for olfactory perception and respond electrophysiologically and behaviorally to volatiles released by damaged host-plant roots. An olfactory apparatus consisting of pore plates at the antennae and about 70 glomeruli as primary olfactory processing units indicates a highly developed olfactory system. Damage induced host plant volatiles released by oak roots such as eucalyptol and anisol are detected by larval antennae down to 5 ppbv in soil air and elicit directed movement of the larvae in natural soil towards the odor source. Our results demonstrate that plant-root volatiles are likely to be perceived by the larval olfactory system and to guide soil-dwelling white grubs through the dark below ground to their host plants. Thus, to find below-ground host plants cockchafer larvae employ mechanisms that are similar to those employed by the adult beetles flying above ground, despite strikingly different physicochemical conditions in the soil.

Original publication




Journal article


PLoS One

Publication Date





Analysis of Variance, Animals, Beetles, Chemotaxis, Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry, Germany, Host-Parasite Interactions, Immunohistochemistry, Larva, Microscopy, Electron, Scanning, Microscopy, Electron, Transmission, Microscopy, Fluorescence, Plant Roots, Quercus, Smell, Statistics, Nonparametric, Volatile Organic Compounds