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Emerging field of neuroecology is showcased in December issue of the Biological Bulletin

MBL, WOODS HOLE, MA A plant laces its leaves with a noxious chemical, forcing a hungry herbivore to choose between starving, eating a potentially toxic item, or moving on. A newt secretes a potent neurotoxin to defend against predators, unwittingly setting off a cascade of effects in its freshwater pond, where other inhabitants co-opt the toxin for different uses. A squid escapes a predator by clouding the water with ink but is this a visual defense, or are there chemical implications for the ecosystem as well?

These and other real-world scenarios are explored in a virtual symposium on the new field of neuroecology in the December issue of The Biological Bulletin. This just-emerging field bridges the gap between studying the neural basis of behavior (neuroethology) and evaluating the consequences of that behavior at the ecological levels of populations and communities.

Neuroecology recognizes a continuum that runs from physiology to individual behavior to populations and communities, says Richard K. Zimmer of the University of California, Los Angeles, who organized the virtual symposium with Charles D. Derby of Georgia State University. Rarely do scientific investigations link in these different scales of biology. And this is a gap that is especially critical to cross. There is a treasure trove of important discoveries to be made about how populations are regulated, in this case by behavior and the physiology that determines behavior.

This Biological Bulletin virtual symposium includes six research papers by leading scientists in neuroecology, as well as an historical overview by Zimmer and Derby of the strands that combine in this interdisciplinary field. Topics include:

  • How neurotoxins emitted for chemical defense function as keystone molecules that have vast ecological consequences at multiple trophic levels, by Richard K. Zimmer and Ryan P. Ferrer of the University of California, Los Angeles

  • How predators cope with foods that have been laced with a noxious, defensive chemical, by John I. Glendinning of Columbia University

  • Ecological functions of the natural products that marine organisms produce for chemical defense, by Valerie J. Paul et. al., Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce, Florida

  • An evolutionary perspective on the defenses used by terrestrial arthropods, especially insects, by William E. Conner et. al., Wake Forest University

  • A review of inking as a means of chemical defense, especially for marine molluscs such as squid, octopuses, sea hares, and cuttlefish, by Charles D. Derby of George State University

  • The use of chemical defenses in plant-microbe interactions, by Florian Weinberger, Leibniz-Institut fr Meereswissenschaften, Kiel, Germany

The tools are now available to work on neuroecology at a wide range of levels of biological organization, says Zimmer. An investigator of behavior doesnt have to stop at the level of cellular physiology or individual organisms; it is now possible to identify the consequences for energy and material flow throughout entire food webs, and for distributions and abundances of organisms within communities. There will continue to be real payoffs from making these broad connections.


Contact: Carol Schachinger
Marine Biological Laboratory  

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