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Integr Comp Biol. 2011 Nov;51(5):771-80. doi: 10.1093/icb/icr063. Epub 2011 Jun 24.

The neuroecology of chemical defenses.

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  • 1Neuroscience Institute and Department of Biology, Georgia State University, P.O. Box 5030, Atlanta, GA 30302-5030, USA.


Chemicals are a frequent means whereby organisms defend themselves against predators, competitors, parasites, microbes, and other potentially harmful organisms. Much progress has been made in understanding how a phylogenetic diversity of organisms living in a variety of environments uses chemical defenses. Chief among these advances is determining the molecular identity of defensive chemicals and the roles they play in shaping interactions between individuals. Some progress has been made in deciphering the molecular, cellular, and systems level mechanisms underlying these interactions, as well as how these interactions can lead to structuring of communities and even ecosystems. The neuroecological approach unifies practices and principles from these diverse disciplines and at all scales as it attempts to explain in a single conceptual framework the abundances of organisms and the distributions of species within natural habitats. This article explores the neuroecology of chemical defenses with a focus on aquatic organisms and environments. We review the concept of molecules of keystone significance, including examples of how saxitoxin and tetrodotoxin can shape the organization and dynamics of marine and riparian communities, respectively. We also describe the current status and future directions of a topic of interest to our research group-the use of ink by marine molluscs, especially sea hares, in their defense. We describe a diversity of molecules and mechanisms mediating the protective effects of sea hares' ink, including use as chemical defenses against predators and as alarm cues toward conspecifics, and postulate that some defensive molecules may function as molecules of keystone significance. Finally, we propose future directions for studying the neuroecology of the chemical defenses of sea hares and their molluscan relatives, the cephalopods.

© The Author 2011. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology. All rights reserved.

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