Plant behavioural ecology: Dynamic plasticity in secondary metabolites

Kerry L. Metlen, Erik T. Aschehoug, Ragan M. Callaway

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

144 Scopus citations


Behaviour is in part the ability to respond rapidly and reversibly in response to environmental stimuli during the lifetime of an individual. Plants and animals both exhibit behaviour, but plant behaviour is most often examined in the context of morphologically plastic growth. Rapid and reversible secondary metabolite production and release is also a key mechanism by which plants behave. Here, we review plant biochemical plasticity as plant behaviour, and explicitly focus on evidence for responses that display rapid induction, reversibility and ecological relevance. Rapid induction and attenuation of plant secondary metabolites occur as chemically mediated root foraging, plant defence, allelochemistry and to regulate mutualistic relationships. We describe a wealth of information on the induction of various plant biochemical responses to environmental stimuli but found a limited body of literature on the reversibility of induced biochemical responses. Understanding the full cycle of dynamic plasticity in secondary metabolites is an important niche for future research. Biochemical behaviours extend beyond the plant kingdom; however, they clearly illustrate the capacity for plants to behave in ways that closely mirror the classic definitions and research approaches applied to behaviour in animals.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)641-653
Number of pages13
JournalPlant, Cell and Environment
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2009


  • Allelopathy
  • Biochemical
  • Foraging
  • Herbivory
  • Induced plant defence
  • Pathogens
  • Plant communication
  • Root exudates


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