OOS 13-10 - Communicating chemical ecology to a broader audience

Tuesday, August 7, 2012: 11:10 AM
B116, Oregon Convention Center
Elsa Youngsteadt, Department of Entomology, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC

All organisms produce, detect, and respond to chemical cues, and chemistry is often a critical mediator of plant-animal interactions. Humans are less attuned to such signals than are many other organisms, and chemical ecologists sometimes struggle to communicate the nature of the invisible processes they study. Using examples from my own research and experience as a writer and editor of research-based articles for a broad audience, I will discuss ways that chemical ecologists can accurately convey their ideas and results to non-chemists. My research examples address the chemical ecology of Neotropical ant gardens (AGs). In this interaction, specific ants collect seeds of several plant species and cultivate them in arboreal nests, forming abundant, conspicuous hanging gardens throughout lowland Amazonia. The association is obligate for both ant and plant partners. I asked how AG seeds elicit seed-collecting behavior in AG ants. To investigate the chemical cues involved, my colleagues and I studied seeds of three species, Anthurium gracile, Codonanthe uleana, and Peperomia macrostachya. We used analytical chemistry, electrophysiology, and two behavioral assays with the AG ant Camponotus femoratus to determine which seed extracts and specific compounds elicited seed-collecting behavior and which attracted ants from a distance.     


Our assays confirmed that chemical cues elicit seed-collecting behavior in C. femoratus. Seeds of the three plant species prompted that behavior with distinctly different chemistry—suggesting that diverse AG plants arrived at the same interaction with ants via unique biochemical routes. For P. macrostachya, we further identified five phenolic and terpenoid compounds that, as a blend, attracted C. femoratus from a distance, but did not elicit seed carrying. We suggest that the AG ant-seed interaction involves two steps: First, ants are attracted by seed aroma. Second, upon contacting seeds, ants respond to additional chemical cues by carrying the seeds. Like many chemical ecology studies, this one was inspired by, and touched on, broader issues, including regeneration of plant communities and evolution of species-specificity in mutualisms. In such cases it is important to make the research clear to non-chemists interested in related questions. A few reliable principles of communicating outside one’s discipline include: Carefully considering what the target audience already knows; presenting new information in small, logically ordered steps; and using simplified or color-coded illustrations and jargon-free language. Doing so could help expand the reach, and thus the explanatory power, of the field of chemical ecology.