Coevolution: Plant–Insect


Coevolution between plants and insects is a relatively frequent phenomenon, in part because of the enormous species diversity of both groups. It is often diffuse, resulting in variability and radiation, and is presumed to result in unstable relationships. Coevolutionary relationships mainly occur between plants and herbivorous insects and between plants and pollinating insects. The mechanisms by which plants and insects interact and perceive each are very diverse, but can be broadly split into two categories: chemical and physical. Insects use a combination of chemical and physical cues to detect and discriminate plants, whereas plants manipulate both of these to either deter or attract insect visitors. These cues can be used either honestly (as warning of potential defences or to advertise offered rewards) or deceptively.

Key Concepts:

  • Plants and insects have coexisted and interacted for more than 350 million years.

  • There is a huge diversity of plant–insect interactions; the equally vast diversity of plant and animal species is thought to be due in part to the selective pressures arising from these interactions.

  • Mechanisms by which plant–insect interactions occur include both physical and chemical.

  • Multiple physical and chemical mechanisms may be involved in an individual interaction.

  • Selection has therefore occurred on multiple aspects of both plants and insects, including their morphology, biochemistry, development, sensory systems and life cycles.

  • Plant–insect relationships are not stable; mutualisms can shift to the detriment of either of the partners.

Keywords: angiosperm; arms race; coevolution; defence; herbivore; insect; mimicry; pollination

Figure 1.

Defensive trichomes protect the Pl. auriculata flower. (a) The glandular trichomes cover the outside of the calyx, preventing crawling animals from accessing the nectar. (b) When the flowers open, flying animals gain access to the nectar from the front of the flower, well away from the trichomes.

Figure 2.

Pollination in action. (a) The large, hinged flowers of Antirrhinum majus can only be opened by large bees such as this bumblebee. (b) Some flowers attract pollen‐collecting bees by providing excess pollen in poricidal nectars.

Figure 3.

The Titan arum in flower. Reproduced with permission with the courtesy of Cambridge University Botanic Garden. © Cambridge University Botanic Garden.

Figure 4.

(a) The inflorescence of a yucca plant, the only species known to be deliberately pollinated by an insect. (b) The swollen anthers and stigmatic lobes of the interior of a yucca flower. The female yucca moth places pollen on to the stigmatic lobes. (c) Nonspecialist pollinators may still visit the yucca, including this honeybee.



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How to Cite close
Whitney, Heather M, and Glover, Beverley J(Feb 2013) Coevolution: Plant–Insect. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0001762.pub2]