The origin and dynamic evolution of chemical information transfer

Sandra Steiger, Thomas Schmitt, H. Martin Schaefer

Abstract

Although chemical communication is the most widespread form of communication, its evolution and diversity are not well understood. By integrating studies of a wide range of terrestrial plants and animals, we show that many chemicals are emitted, which can unintentionally provide information (cues) and, therefore, act as direct precursors for the evolution of intentional communication (signals). Depending on the content, design and the original function of the cue, there are predictable ways that selection can enhance the communicative function of chemicals. We review recent progress on how efficacy-based selection by receivers leads to distinct evolutionary trajectories of chemical communication. Because the original function of a cue may channel but also constrain the evolution of functional communication, we show that a broad perspective on multiple selective pressures acting upon chemicals provides important insights into the origin and dynamic evolution of chemical information transfer. Finally, we argue that integrating chemical ecology into communication theory may significantly enhance our understanding of the evolution, the design and the content of signals in general.

  • Received October 20, 2010.
  • Accepted November 26, 2010.
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