Gastropod grazing on a benthic alga leads to liberation of food-finding infochemicals

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Chemical information transfer is a major agent in the regulation of interspecific and intraspecific interactions in natural ecosystems. One important group of such infochemicals both in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems are so-called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can evoke behavioral or physiological responses like predator avoidance and mate or host location. In previous work, we have demonstrated that freshwater gastropods utilize VOCs released from benthic algae as food finding cues, although the specific nature of the VOC release and perception were not yet clear. Therefore we tested whether gastropod grazing on biofilms leads to algal cell damage and a subsequent liberation of wounding-associated VOCs. In bioassays we investigated the algal VOC bouquet level which is necessary to elicit a behavioural response of freshwater gastropods. The results of the liberation experiment showed that gastropod grazing leads to VOCs release. We also found that a certain threshold level of volatiles is necessary for snails to recognise the volatile infochemicals and subsequently respond with a directed foraging behaviour towards the odour. Finally, a calculated mass balance model demonstrated that the grazer mediated VOC release produced a signal concentration that is sufficient to be recognized by conspecifics and utilized as foraging infochemicals. The emission of ecologically relevant volatiles through snail grazing with subsequent attraction of other gastropod grazers to algal biofilms indicates an important but so far understudied chemical signaling mechanism of ecological importance.

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