Ode to Ehrlich and Raven or how herbivorous insects might drive plant speciation

Robert J. Marquis, Diego Salazar, Christina Baer, Jason Reinhardt, Galen Priest, Kirk Barnett

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Scopus citations


Fifty years ago, Ehrlich and Raven proposed that insect herbivores have driven much of plant speciation, particularly at tropical latitudes. There have been no explicit tests of their hypotheses. Indeed there were no proposed mechanisms either at the time or since by which herbivores might generate new plant species. Here we outline two main classes of mechanisms, prezygotic and postzygotic, with a number of scenarios in each by which herbivore-driven changes in host plant secondary chemistry might lead to new plant lineage production. The former apply mainly to a sympatric model of speciation while the latter apply to a parapatric or allopatric model. Our review suggests that the steps of each mechanism are known to occur individually in many different systems, but no scenario has been thoroughly investigated in any one system. Nevertheless, studies of Dalechampia and its herbivores and pollinators, and patterns of defense tradeoffs in trees on different soil types in the Peruvian Amazon provide evidence consistent with the original hypotheses of Ehrlich and Raven. For herbivores to drive sympatric speciation, our findings suggest that interactions with both their herbivores and their pollinators should be considered. In contrast, herbivores may drive speciation allopatrically without any influence by pollinators. Finally, there is evidence that these mechanisms are more likely to occur at low latitudes and thus more likely to produce new species in the tropics. The mechanisms we outline provide a predictive framework for further study of the general role that herbivores play in diversification of their host plants.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2939-2951
Number of pages13
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 1 2016

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 by the Ecological Society of America.


  • Coevolution
  • Defense evolution
  • Herbivorous insects
  • Latitudinal gradients
  • Plant speciation
  • Pollination
  • Soils
  • Tropical forests


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