Seedling and herbivory research

Dr Mick Hanley and Dr Anne-Emmanuelle Felix are looking at the release of volatile cues by seedlings and their detection by invertebrate herbivores (Leverhulme Project).

Tremendous interest is currently focussed on the role of volatile chemicals as a means of plant defence against herbivore attack. These plant volatiles act either by direct herbivore deterrence, or via attraction of parasitic or predatory insects that are the natural enemies of the herbivore. Although this research has many potential applications ranging from a better understanding of plant defence theory to practical crop plant defence, most research has centred on established plants where the consequences of invertebrate herbivory are less pronounced. Herbivory at the seedling stage by contrast is generally fatal to the individual and has the potential to affect greatly the establishment success of native and crop plant species alike.

As one of the key seedling herbivores, terrestrial molluscs are known to detect plant volatiles, but how plant volatiles influence mollusc olfaction and feeding behaviour remains poorly explored at the critical seedling stage. In addition to olfactometer trials to look at snail behavioural response to seedling volatiles, we are examining neurophysiological effects on mollusc olfactory receptors to identify the key volatiles involved in eliciting behavioural and neurophysiological responses. Beyond the fact that the link between mollusc olfaction and feeding behaviour is poorly explored for seedlings in natural ecosystems, a better understanding of the processes that underpin mollusc olfaction and feeding behaviour will increase our ability to protect crops during the vulnerable establishment phase.