The evolution of floral scent and insect chemical communication




Ecology Letters (2010) 13: 643–656


Plants have evolved a range of strategies to manipulate the behaviour of their insect partners. One powerful strategy is to produce signals that already have a role in the animals’ own communication systems. To investigate to what extent the evolution of floral scents is correlated with chemical communication in insects, I analyse the occurrence, commonness, and evolutionary patterns of the 71 most common ‘floral’ volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in 96 plant families and 87 insect families. I found an overlap of 87% in VOCs produced by plants and insects. ‘Floral’ monoterpenes showed strong positive correlation in commonness between plants (both gymnosperms and angiosperms) and herbivores, whereas the commonness of ‘floral’ aromatics was positively correlated between angiosperms and both pollinators and herbivores. According to a multivariate regression analysis the commonness of ‘floral’ aromatics was best explained by their commonness in pollinators, whereas monoterpenes were best explained by herbivores. Among pollinator orders, aromatics were significantly more common in Lepidoptera than in Hymenoptera, whereas monoterpenes showed no difference among the two orders. Collectively, these patterns suggest that plants and insects converge in overall patterns of volatile production, both for attraction and defence. Monoterpenes seem to have evolved primarily for defence under selection by herbivores, whereas aromatics evolved signalling functions in angiosperms, primarily for pollinator attraction.