Great chemistry between us: the link between plant chemical defenses and butterfly evolution

C.F.H. van der Linden*, M.F. WallisDeVries, S. Simon*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Plants constantly cope with insect herbivory, which is thought to be the evolutionary driver for the immense diversity of plant chemical defenses. Herbivorous insects are in turn restricted in host choice by the presence of plant chemical defense barriers. In this study, we analyzed whether butterfly host–plant patterns are determined by the presence of shared plant chemical defenses rather than by shared plant evolutionary history. Using correlation and phylogenetic statistics, we assessed the impact of host–plant chemical defense traits on shaping northwestern European butterfly assemblages at a macroevolutionary scale. Shared chemical defenses between plant families showed stronger correlation with overlap in butterfly assemblages than phylogenetic relatedness, providing evidence that chemical defenses may determine the assemblage of butterflies per plant family rather than shared evolutionary history. Although global congruence between butterflies and host–plant families was detected across the studied herbivory interactions, cophylogenetic statistics showed varying levels of congruence between butterflies and host chemical defense traits. We attribute this to the existence of multiple antiherbivore traits across plant families and the diversity of insect herbivory associations per plant family. Our results highlight the importance of plant chemical defenses in community ecology through their influence on insect assemblages.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)8595-8613
JournalEcology and Evolution
Issue number13
Early online date27 Apr 2021
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • butterfly assemblages
  • chemical defense
  • coevolution
  • ecological communities
  • macroevolution
  • plant–insect interaction


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