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, including plants.
Some species of plants detect the chemical signals of others being fed on by herbivores. They can prepare for an ensuing attack by priming their tissues with toxic compounds. Recent research has even shown that just the sounds of a feeding herbivore can elicit a defensive response in plants. As herbivores feed on plants, and try to cope with plant defenses, they are also using highly-tuned sensory organs to probe their surrounding environment.
One continuous concern for the lowly herbivore is becoming someone’s meal. When a potential predator cue enters the herbivore’s perceptive range they can deploy behavioral, physiological and even morphological changes to mitigate predation risk. Collectively these responses are termed non-consumptive effects, which is in addition to the actual consumption of prey, or simply put, the consumptive effect.
The complexity and nuance involved in multi-trophic communication is truly amazing, continuing all the way down to the individual organism. Each living entity experiences their surrounding environment differently based on a variety of factors such as sensory organs that differ in perceptive ability, or slight changes to how signals are sent. The term umwelt explains this phenomenon nicely, which is defined as the world as is experienced by an organism.
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.