The xylem sap in plants is both nutrient poor and can exist under tensions that routinely exceed 1 MPa. We revealed how froghoppers, tiny insects that feed exclusively on xylem sap, can generate the tremendous suction needed to suck copious quantities of this liquid out of the plant, and the energetic costs of this unusual feeding strategy.
Popular Science: These insects have 80 times the suction power of an elephant and pee at an alarming rate
The New York Times: This insect drinks your milkshake
ScienceNews: Froghoppers are the super-suckers of the animal world
Elisabeth A. Bergman, Emma L. Greenand Philip G. D. Matthews. 2021. The cibarial pump of the xylem-feeding froghopper Philaenus spumarius produces negative pressures exceeding 1 MPaThe cibarial pump of the xylem-feeding froghopper Philaenus spumarius produces negative pressures exceeding 1 MPa. Proceedings of the Royal Society B
The xylem sap of vascular plants is an unlikely source of nutrition, being both nutrient poor and held under tensions (negative pressures) that can exceed 1 MPa. But some insects feed on xylem sap exclusively, extracting copious quantities using a muscular cibarial pump. However, neither the strength of the insect's suction, nor the direct energetic cost of xylem ingestion, have ever been quantified. Philaenus spumarius froghoppers were used to address these gaps in our knowledge. Micro-CT scans of its cibarium and measurements of cibarial muscle sarcomere length revealed that P. spumarius can generate a maximum tension of 1.3 ± 0.2 MPa within its cibarium. The energetic cost of xylem extraction was quantified using respirometry to measure the metabolic rate (MR) of P. spumarius while they fed on hydroponically grown legumes, while xylem sap excretion rate and cibarial pumping frequency were simultaneously recorded. Increasing the plants' xylem tensions up to 1.1 MPa by exposing their roots to polyethylene glycol did not reduce the insects’ rate of xylem excretion, but significantly increased both MR and pumping frequency. We conclude that P. spumarius can gain energy feeding on xylem sap containing previously reported energy densities and at xylem tensions up to their maximum suction capacity.