Our daily experience is shaped by just a handful of senses. These senses intercept cues that help us better understand our surrounding environment and, before modern times, provided crucial inputs to make decisions about food sources, mates, and potential threats. Most all organisms collect data from their environment to make choices, and the field of sensory ecology aims to learn more about how organisms send, receive, and interpret sensory signals.
Many practical applications can be derived from a greater understanding of how organisms process sensory information, ranging from aiding human conditions to conservation biology and pest management. The latter highlights opportunities that can improve pest management strategies by leveraging the target organism’s sensory system to meet management goals.
The sensory modality of choice has generally been olfaction, through the use of message-carrying chemical signals, or semiochemicals. Semiochemicals have successfully controlled many forest and crop insects by altering insect behavior such as attracting them to traps, or repelling them from areas. These synthetically made chemical compounds can smell like sex pheromones or host plants to attract insects to traps, or smell like predators, eliciting antipredation behaviors like reducing the number of eggs laid or the amount of plant material consumed.
Although chemical communication is one of the dominate sensory modalities in insects, applied sensory ecologists work to incorporate a multimodal approach with the hope of increasing the efficacy of treatments. For example, volatile dispensers that smell like a target pest’s predator can also be made to visually and acoustically mimic the predator.
All of these interactions provide a wealth of basic and applied questions to investigate. By learning more about how organisms communicate, my goal is to develop innovative solutions for pest control and conservation purposes.