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Phytochemical diversity drives plant-insect community diversity
AuthorRichards, Lora A.
Dyer, Lee A.
Forister, Matthew L.
Smilanich, Angela M.
Dodson, Craig D.
Leonard, Michael D.
Jeffrey, Christopher S.
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What are the ecological causes and consequences of variation in phytochemical diversity within and between plant taxa? Despite decades of natural products discovery by organic chemists and research by chemical ecologists, our understanding of phytochemically mediated ecological processes in natural communities has been restricted to studies of either broad classes of compounds or a small number of well-characterized molecules. Until now, no studies have assessed the ecological causes or consequences of rigorously quantified phytochemical diversity across taxa in natural systems. Consequently, hypotheses that attempt to explain variation in phytochemical diversity among plants remain largely untested. We use spectral data from crude plant extracts to characterize phytochemical diversity in a suite of co-occurring plants in the tropical genus Piper (Piperaceae). In combination with 20 years of data focused on Piper-associated insects, we find that phytochemical diversity has a direct and positive effect on the diversity of herbivores but also reduces overall herbivore damage. Elevated chemical diversity is associated with more specialized assemblages of herbivores, and the cascading positive effect of phytochemistry on herbivore enemies is stronger as herbivore diet breadth narrows. These results are consistent with traditional hypotheses that predict positive associations between plant chemical diversity, insect herbivore diversity, and trophic specialization. It is clear from these results that high phytochemical diversity not only enhances the diversity of plant-associated insects but also contributes to the ecological predominance of specialized insect herbivores.