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Sharlene Santana and Jeffrey Riffell in UW News on new research about role of scent compounds in the coevolution of bats and pepper plants

Monday, August 16, 2021 - 15:45

UW News posted a story about new research into the evolution of fruit-eating bats and pepper plants. In a published Aug. 11 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers at the UW, the Burke Museum and Stony Brook University report that volatile organic compounds produced by fruits on certain pepper plants at prime ripeness may have evolved to attract scent-oriented, short-tailed fruit bats from the genus Carollia, who then eat the fruits and excrete the seeds into the landscape.

Co-lead authors on the study are Dr. Sharlene Santana, a UW professor of biology and curator of mammals at the Burke Museum, and former UW postdoctoral researcher Dr. Zofia Kaliszewska. Other co-authors include Dr. Jeffrey Riffell, a UW professor of biology, and UW doctoral alum Dr. Leith Leiser-Miller.

Plant–animal interactions have captured the attention of biologists for centuries, and are key to maintaining the biodiversity of tropical ecosystems. The dispersal syndrome hypothesis — an explanation of how mutually beneficial relationships between plants and fruit-eating animals may lead to coevolution — proposes that, when animals are effective seed dispersers, they may select for fruit traits, including size, color and odor, that match their sensory abilities, such as vision and olfaction. But few studies have tested this hypothesis for complex traits like fruit scents. This research provides one of the first tests of bat-driven, fruit scent evolution.


The study is based on data collected during fieldwork at La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica. There, Piper is highly diverse, with more than 50 recognized species. It is also a location where three Carollia species — C. castanea, C. sowellii and C. perspicillata — are some of the most abundant bats year-round and coexist with approximately 62 other bat species.

The team spent hundreds of hours searching and collecting ripe fruits from Piper to extract and quantify the VOCs that make up their fragrant scent. They also collected fecal samples from live bats and then released them back into the wild to determine which Piper species the bats were eating and how much. In addition, the researchers conducted behavioral experiments with wild bats where they offered options of unripe fruits enhanced with the most common VOCs found in local Piper plants. Video cameras and microphones recorded the bats’ feeding behaviors and echolocation calls.

Read the full article in UW News.


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