J Syst Evol ›› 2023, Vol. 61 ›› Issue (3): 445-453.DOI: 10.1111/jse.12841

• Review • Previous Articles     Next Articles

Plant-insect chemical communication in ecological communities: An information theory perspective

Peng-Juan Zu1,2*, Reinaldo García-García3, Meredith C. Schuman4, Serguei Saavedra5, and Carlos J. Melián2,6   

  1. 1 Department of Environmental Systems Science, ETH Zurich, Schmelzbergstrasse 9, Zurich CH-8092, Switzerland
    2 Department Fish Ecology&Evolution, Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology(Eawag), Seestrasse 79, Kastanienbaum CH-6047, Switzerland
    3 Departamento de Física y Matemática Aplicada, Facultad de Ciencias, Universidad de Navarra, Irunlarrea 1, Pamplona 31008, Spain
    4 Departments of Chemistry and Geography, University of Zurich, Winterthurerstrasse 190, Zurich CH-8057, Switzerland
    5 Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 77 Massachusetts Av., Cambridge 02139, MA, USA
    6 Institute of Ecology and Evolution, University of Bern, Baltzerstrasse 6, Bern CH-3012, Switzerland
    *Author for correspondence. E-mail:pengjuan.zu@gmail.com
  • Received:2021-09-30 Revised:2022-02-15 Online:2022-02-23 Published:2023-05-01

Abstract: Cross-species communication, where signals are sent by one species and perceived by others, is one of the most intriguing types of communication that functionally links different species to form complex ecological networks. Global change and human activity can affect communication by increasing fluctuations in species composition and phenology, altering signal profiles and intensity, and introducing noise. So far, most studies on cross-species communication have focused on a few specific species isolated from ecological communities. Scaling up investigations of cross-species communication to the community level is currently hampered by a lack of conceptual and practical methodologies. Here, we propose an interdisciplinary framework based on information theory to investigate mechanisms shaping cross-species communication at the community level. We use plants and insects, the cornerstones of most ecosystems, as a showcase and focus on chemical communication as the key communication channel. We first introduce some basic concepts of information theory, then we illustrate information patterns in plant-insect chemical communication, followed by a further exploration of how to integrate information theory into ecological and evolutionary processes to form testable mechanistic hypotheses. We conclude by highlighting the importance of community-level information as a means to better understand the maintenance and workings of ecological systems, especially during rapid global change.

Key words: chemical communication, ecological networks, functional traits, information theory, plant-insect interaction, volatile organic compounds, Zipf's law