Alina Avanesyan
Among the redwoods -- Muir Woods

Novel plant-insect associations; implications of the lack of coevolution

In my current postdoctoral work at the University of Maryland (Department of Entomology; Dr. Bill Lamp’s lab) I continue my research on ecology and evolution of plant-insect interactions with a focus on novel associations between native and introduced species. Currently, I am developing several research projects: I am planning to continue exploring herbivore resistance and tolerance in exotic grasses, a potential role of native insect generalists in biotic resistance of native communities, and, most recently, I’ve started developing a project on host plant usage by a recent invader, the spotted lanternfly. A brief description for each project is below. I will be adding more details as the projects develop.

Should I eat or should I go: acridid grasshoppers and their novel host plants

This is a systematic review I’ve been working on for the past year, and now it is almost ready for submission - so exciting! The review aimed to identify patterns of grasshopper feeding preferences for native versus introduced plants and, consequently, grasshopper potential for biotic resistance of native communities, that (as the review has shown) is surprisingly overlooked in experimental studies on invasion ecology.

Update – 05/18/18: the manuscript has been submitted!

My table pet for inspiration..

Herbivore resistance in Miscanthus sinensis cultivars

Although exotic chinese silver grass, a gorgeous ornamental plant and important biofuel source, can be highly invasive in some states, not all of its cultivars are invasive. I am currently designing my field and greenhouse experiments for the upcoming summer season to explore plant resistance to grasshopper herbivory and how this resistance differs among Miscanthus cultivars, and whether the initially introduced wild type demonstrates the highest level of herbivore resistance.

Some of the Miscanthus cultivars I consider to study

Plant DNA detection within gut contents in sap-feeding insects

Plant DNA detection in insect gut contents is one of the most accurate ways to confirm host plant utilization, determine insect diet and interactions with other organisms. Most of the previous studies that involved molecular analysis of insect gut contents were primarily conducted on leaf-chewing insects, such as beetles, moths, or grasshoppers. Sap-feeders could be more challenging for molecular analysis of their gut contents because phloem sap presumably doesn’t contain plant DNA. However, this method was shown to be effective for potato psyllids (Cooper et al 2016) - apparently, while feeding an insect stylet (a piercing mouthpart) can consume not only phloem sap but can also pick up some of the surrounding plant cells which allows DNA to be detected in the insect gut contents. In this project, we would like to investigate whether (and how) we can apply this method for yet another sap-feeder, the potato leafhopper, to explore its host plant usage.

This is what grasshoppers ate (Avanesyan, 2014); we hope to find out what leafhoppers would like to feed on.

Biodiversity of agricultural drainage ditches

I’ve recently joined this ongoing project in Dr. Lamp’s lab, and I am currently ‘torturing’ herbarium plant specimens hoping that they will speak and tell me their taxonomic identity. Having almost zero previous experience in plant identification, so far I have barely advanced to plant family level (with the aid of textbooks and technology). A lot to learn, a lot to do…

Some of my new plant friends

Host plant usage of the spotted lanternfly

I am currently working on a grant proposal where we propose to study the spotted lanternfly (SLF) and its interaction with host plants. This emerging invasive insect pest is currently rapidly spreading in the eastern US, moving closer and closer to Maryland. This is a completely new study species for me, and while reading more and more about it I can’t stop being amazed by SLF unique ecology and behavior.

Update – 04/22/18: the grant proposal has recently been submitted to MDA. I’ll keep my fingers crossed!

The spotted lanternfly, Lycorma delicatula
L. delicatula: adult
L. delicatula: egg mass

Photo credit: Prof. Michael J. Raupp, Department of Entomology, University of Maryland (Bug of the week).

Peer-Reviewed Publications

Submitted manuscripts

  1. Avanesyan, A. (2018) Should I eat or should I go? Acridid grasshoppers and their novel host plants: implications for biotic resistance.

Manuscripts in preparation

  1. Avanesyan, A., Lamp, W., Snook, K., and P. Follett. Short-term physiological response of a native Hawaiian plant, Hibiscus arnottianus, to injury by the exotic leafhopper, Sophonia orientalis (Hemiptera: Cicadellidae).