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Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Integrative Life Sciences

First Advisor

Karen M. Kester


Parasitic wasps are highly diverse and play a major role in suppression of herbivorous pest populations, but relatively little is known of the mechanisms driving their diversity. Molecular studies indicate that cryptic species complexes resulting from adaptations to specific hosts or host-foodplants may be common. The gregarious endoparasitoid, Cotesia congregata (Braconidae), is a model system for understanding parasitic wasp biology. It is reported to attack at least 15 species of sphingid caterpillars, most of which are plant family specialists. Molecular studies have demonstrated genetic differentiation of two host-foodplant complex sources originating from Manduca sexta on tobacco (MsT) and Ceratomia catalpae on catalpa (CcC). Response to female pheromone and elements of their courtship songs differ. Wasps from both sources mated and produced F1 hybrid offspring in the laboratory; however, 90% of hybrid females resulting from one of the reciprocal crosses failed to produce offspring. I built on this previous work by evaluating an ecological barrier, the evolution of courtship songs within the genus, and patterns of hybrid sterility among four additional host-foodplant complexes, as well as differentiation of their symbiotic bracovirus. Tests of developmental tolerance to nicotine demonstrate that MsT wasps are highly adapted to hosts feeding on tobacco, whereas CcC wasps experience high mortality. Acoustic analysis of courtship songs among host-foodplant sources of C. congregata and eleven additional species of Cotesia demonstrates that songs are species specific and appear to be correlated with genetic relatedness. Cotesia congregata from all sources mated and produced F1 hybrid offspring in the laboratory; however, hybrid females resulting from specific reciprocal crosses failed to produce progeny. Dissections of hybrid females revealed that sterile wasps lacked mature ovaries and functional bracovirus, a symbiotic virus integrated into the wasp genome and necessary to suppress the host immune system. Relative in vivo expression of wasp bracovirus genes differs between MsT and CcC host-foodplant complexes. Cumulatively, these behavioral, ecological, and genetic barriers to reproduction indicate that C. congregata is diverged into two incipient species with limited gene flow, and provides insight into the role of varied reproductive barriers in speciation of parasitic wasps.


© Justin Bredlau

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