Voicemail discovered in nature: Insects receive soil messages from the past

Jun 12, 2012
Ragwort plants show to act as phones that insects can even use to store "voicemail messages" in the soil. Credit: Olga Kostenko / NIOO-KNAW

Insects can use plants as 'green phones' for communication with other bugs. A new study now shows that through those same plants insects are also able to leave 'voicemail' messages in the soil. Herbivorous insects store their voicemails via their effects on soil fungi. Researchers from the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW) and Wageningen University (WUR) discovered this unique messaging service in the ragwort plant. The influential journal Ecology Letters will soon publish these results.

A few years ago, NIOO scientists discovered that soil-dwelling and aboveground insects are able to communicate with each other using the plant as a telephone. Insects eating change the of the leaves, causing the plant to release volatile signals into the air. This can convince aboveground insects to select another food plant in order to avoid competition and TO ESCAPE FROM POISONOUS DEFENCE COMPOUNDS in the plant. But the impact doesn't stop there.

Research on insects' voicemail involves following insects feeding on plant leaves. This triggers the plant to react, the soil fungi community to change, and the next generation of plants and insects to pick up the message. Credit: Olga Kostenko / NIOO-KNAW

The new research shows that insects leave a specific legacy that remains in the soil after they have fed on a plant. And future plants growing on that same spot can pick up these signals from the soil and pass them on to other insects. Those messages are really specific: the new plant can tell whether the former one was suffering from leaf-eating caterpillars or from root-eating insects.

"The new PLANTS ARE ACTUALLY DECODING a 'voicemail' message from the past to the next generation of plant-feeding insects, and their enemies," recaps NIOO researcher and first author Olga Kostenko. "The insects are re-living the past." This message from the past strongly influences the growth and possibly also the behaviour of these bugs. Today's insect community is influenced by the messages from past seasons.

In the greenhouse of the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW) plants and plant-feeding insects are put together to assess their ability to store "voicemail messages" in the soil. Credit: Olga Kostenko / NIOO-KNAW

Kostenko and her colleagues grew ragwort plants in a greenhouse and exposed them to leaf-eating caterpillars or root-feeding beetle . Then they grew new plants in the same soil and exposed them to insects again. "What we discovered is that the composition of fungi in the soil changed greatly and depended on whether the insect had been feeding on roots or leaves," explains Kostenko. "These changes in fungal community, in turn, affected the growth and chemistry of the next batch of plants and therefore the insects on those plants."

Growth and PALATABILITY of new plants in the same soil thus mirrored the condition of the previous plant. In this way, a new plant can pass down the soil legacy or message from the past to and their enemies.

"How long are these kept in the soil? That's what I ALSO WOULD LIKE TO KNOW!" adds Kostenko. "We're working on this, and on the question of how widespread this phenomenon is in nature."

Explore further: 'Red effect' sparks interest in female monkeys

More information: onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10… 012.01801.x/abstract

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Insects use plant like a telephone

Apr 23, 2008

Dutch ecologist Roxina Soler and her colleagues have discovered that subterranean and aboveground herbivorous insects can communicate with each other by using plants as telephones. Subterranean insects issue chemical warning ...

Global warming may reroute evolution

Feb 16, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Rising carbon dioxide levels associated with global warming may affect interactions between plants and the insects that eat them, altering the course of plant evolution, research at the University ...

Eating like a bird helps forests grow

Apr 05, 2010

Lions, tigers and bears top the ecological pyramid -- the diagram of the food chain that every school child knows. They eat smaller animals, feeding on energy that flows up from the base where plants convert ...

Exotic plants do not necessarily become invasive

Dec 19, 2011

Introduced plant species do not necessarily have to outgrow indigenous plant species. That makes it difficult to predict the potential harm of exotic plants. NWO-funded researcher Annelein Meisner recently published an article ...

A bit touchy: Plants' insect defenses activated by touch

Apr 09, 2012

A new study by Rice University scientists reveals that plants can use the sense of touch to fight off fungal infections and insects. The study, which will be published in the April 24 issue of Current Biology, finds ...

Recommended for you

'Red effect' sparks interest in female monkeys

Oct 17, 2014

Recent studies showed that the color red tends increase our attraction toward others, feelings of jealousy, and even reaction times. Now, new research shows that female monkeys also respond to the color red, ...

Roads negatively affect frogs and toads, study finds

Oct 17, 2014

The development of roads has a significant negative and pervasive effect on frog and toad populations, according to a new study conducted by a team of researchers that included undergraduate students and ...

All in a flap: Seychelles fears foreign bird invader

Oct 17, 2014

It was just a feather: but in the tropical paradise of the Seychelles, the discovery of parakeet plumage has put environmentalists in a flutter, with a foreign invading bird threatening the national parrot.

Amphibians being wiped out by emerging viruses

Oct 16, 2014

Scientists tracing the real-time impact of viruses in the wild have found that entire amphibian communities are being killed off by closely related viruses introduced to mountainous areas of northern Spain.

User comments : 0