Evolutionary Ecology of Plant-Insect Interactions

Organisational unit: Research group


We are interested in the processes that generate biodiversity. In our research, we investigate the processes that have made plants and plant-feeding insects two of the most diverse and abundant groups of organisms on earth.


We combine genomic, evolutionary and ecological studies to ask and answer questions about the distribution, diversification and conservation of biodiversity within and among species, and in particular how these patterns and processes are affected by the interaction between plants and insects. Our research bridges the gap between zoology and botany by integrating studies of animal- and plant biodiversity. We study spatial patterns in plant signalling and defence traits and insect host- /and nectar plant preference, and how these interactions are affected by the nature of the plant-insect relationship (antagonistic/mutualistic), by the specificity of the interaction, and by the geographic context at landscape- and continent scales. We are also interested in how within species variation enables and facilitates adaptation, knowledge that is crucial for management of insect populations that can adapt and survive in a changing climate.

More about us

We collaborate closely on most projects, which allows us to use our complementary expertise and perspectives to understand how ecological and evolutionary processes, including species interactions, can generate novel biodiversity. We co-supervise MSc and PhD-students and encourage postdoctoral researchers to work with several groups.

We encourage scholars interested in postdoctoral positions to approach and ask for the current possibilities to apply for joint funding.

Anna Runemark lab

I am a diversity and speciation researcher with evolutionary genomics and biogeography expertise and a background in evolutionary ecology. Broadly, my research strives to identify how variation arises and the processes by which it sorts into new species, as well as which ecological settings and factors that promote these processes.

Øystein Opedal lab

I am interested in understanding how plants and their interactors (pollinators, seed predators, herbivores) respond to changing environments. Currently, my main research activities include studies of mating-system and floral evolution in the neotropical vine Dalechampia, and studies of the role of species interactions in structuring the spatial and temporal dynamics of communities. I am also interested in understanding how alpine plant communities respond to climate change. I study these processes in the field, in the greenhouse, and through comparative (meta-)analyses.

Magne Friberg lab

In our lab group, we acknowledge that most species interactions evolve in site-specific networks of multiple coevolving species, and that each interaction is likely shaping suites of traits on both sides of the interaction. Therefore, our study systems often include multiple plant- and insect species that form small interaction networks. In these networks, we study plant and insect trait evolution, and the role of trait diversification for gene flow and local adaptation. Please read more about our research below.



Masters-/internship students

  • Emma Kärrnäs
  • Karolina Pehrson
  • Cristina Rodriguez Otero
  • Vanda Temesvári
  • Sofía Torres
  • Julio Antonio Ayala Lopez
  • Yan Chao
  • Patrycja Jamelska
  • Edward O´Shea

Research assistant

  • Kajsa Svensson


  • Karin Gross (now postdoc at Paris Lodron Universität Salzburg)
  • Jesus Ortega (now postdoc at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology (CSIC-UPF), Barcelona)
  • Hampus Petrén (now postdoc at Marburg University)
  • Sotiria Boutsi (now PhD student at Harper Adams University)
  • Andrés Romero Bravo (now PhD-student at University of Sussex)


More about our research

Below, we list some of the major research current projects in the research group. Please contact us for more information and opportunities.

Plant genome duplications and the evolution of plant-insect interactions

Diversification requires processes that generate diversity (mutation, recombination) and processes that filter this diversity (drift, natural selection). In plants, the most dramatic form of mutation is polyploidization, the duplication of the chromosome set. We investigate the direct effects of polyploidization on phenotypic traits of importance for plant-insect interactions (e.g. floral scent and morphology), using different ploidy-types of the plant Lithophragma bolanderi as model. This species involves multiple ploidy-levels, and different populations are highly variable in floral scent and morphology, and in the propensity to form asexual propagation bodies (root bulbils). Ecology may interact with genomic architecture if pre-existing selection for asexuality facilitates establishment of polyploid lineages; e.g., in conditions where pollination is unreliable, selection should favour asexual reproduction also in diploid populations. Thus, the success of novel polyploids may depend on plant-insect interactions. We combine genomic methods with greenhouse experiments and ecological field studies to address how ecological processes and genomic architecture interact to shape resource allocation into sexual and asexual reproduction, and how this variation facilitates the origination of ploidy-level variation.
Contact: Magne Friberg or Anna Runemark

The ecology and evolution of plant mating systems

Plants exhibit remarkably diverse sexual systems that range from obligate selfing to enforced outcrossing through self-incompatibility, separate sexes, or spatial or temporal separation of sex function within bisexual flowers. Among self-compatible species, most exhibit mixed mating systems, in which a proportion s of offspring are produced through self-fertilization, and a proportion t = 1 – s through outcrossing. We use the tropical vine Dalechampia and the Eurasian herb Arabis alpina as model systems to assess which ecological factors (e.g. pollination reliability, intensity of seed predation) that drive the evolution of mating systems among populations.
The same advertisements that attract pollinators can be picked up also by herbivores and seed predators. Local variation in these networks is likely to be an important driver of geographical variation in plant signaling. In A. alpina several populations have evolved self-compatibility. These populations also vary substantially in floral morphology and chemical floral signaling, and provide an interesting model system for understanding the relationship between different floral signals, the plant mating system and the local community of associated insects.
Contact:  Øystein Opedal or Magne Friberg

How does adaptation to a novel niche mould genomes and phenotypes?

Using host-plant-specific subspecies of the fly T. conura we investigate the adaptations following host-plant shifts and identify the areas in the genome associated with these phenotypic characters. We are particularly interested in how coding genetic divergence and regulation of gene expression interact during adaptation. Broadly, this research strives to increase the understanding of how ecological selection can lead to divergent adaptation and creation of novel diversity. A new niche implies altered selection pressures on several aspects of the phenotype, and this will generate correlational selection for certain combinations of traits/loci. Ultimately, we also aim to address how non-physical linkage disequilibrium arises when several genomically unlinked loci are selected to be coinherited, and how this process affects both genetic variation and evolvability.
Adaptation to new environments and selection pressures can be either plastic or genetic. We investigate whether the relative contribution of these different mechanisms differs between populations that are facultatively using two different host plants and would be predicted to benefit from plastic responses, and these that are host plant specialists. We address this through combining data on differences in gene expression with data on the fitness consequences of generalist behavior and specialization within the same species. The genetic basis of adaptation is highly relevant for the ability to adapt, and speed at which species and populations may adapt, to a changing climate. This research is supported by a Swedish Research Council Establishment Grant.
Contact: Anna Runemark

Understanding pollinator-mediated reproductive interactions

Whenever plant species that share pollinators flower together, there is scope for plant-plant interactions mediated by pollinators. These reproductive interactions can have direct fitness consequences for each plant species, and may affect the assembly of communities. The coflowering community may also affect patterns of natural selection on each species, and thus drive evolution of flowers and whole-plant phenotypes. We are currently looking for students, PhD candidates and postdocs interested in working on these issues!
Contact: Øystein Opedal

Coevolutionary divergence in tight mutualisms

Obligate relationships between prodoxid moths and their host plants are among the best-studied examples of coevolution in nature. The moth Greya politella simultaneously pollinates and lays eggs into the flowers of its Lithophragma host plants (Saxifragaceae). We study the evolution of floral scent variation, and its importance for interaction specificity and population and species divergence among both the plants and the insects. Further, we compare the impact of selection from the specific moth pollinators with the evolutionary effects of generalized co-pollinators at various geographic scales.
Contact: Magne Friberg

How can hybridization create novel variation?

Hybridization is increasingly recognized as an important evolutionary force, creating novel variation. To understand how novel combinations of parental alleles can form new fit phenotypes we use a unique study system, consisting of independently formed hybrid populations of Italian sparrows on Mediterranean islands for which we have sequenced entire genomes. We are interested in whether specific combinations of genotypes repeatedly arise, and which regions of the genome are free to vary. We also work on how evolution of regulation of gene expression in a hybrid species can contribute novel variation, and investigate whether Transposable Elements are re-activated in hybrid genomes in collaboration with Dr. Alexander Suh.
Contact: Anna Runemark

The Dynamics of Complex Terrains

The environments inhabited by natural populations are not homogeneous, but vary at scales ranging from continents to centimetres. Alpine landscapes, for example, are often very heterogeneous due to the complex topography characteristic of mountain landscapes. Environmental heterogeneity associated with topographic complexity have myriad consequences for the organisms inhabiting these environments, not least their ability to persist when the environment is changing. Populations can respond to environmental change in two basic ways: either stay where you are and adjust or adapt to novel environmental conditions, or migrate to track favourable environments elsewhere. Populations that fail to do so are likely to go extinct due to competition from well-adapted invaders. We have been interested in how topographically complex landscapes differ from more homogeneous ones. One consistent pattern is that complex landscapes tend to contain more species, most likely due to the greater range of microenvironments available on complex landscapes. Furthermore, complex landscapes tend to be more variable in space, so that when walking across the landscape, you will tend to encounter more different species. In ecological terms, complex landscapes are characterized by greater beta-diversity. Why does this matter for populations experiencing environmental change? The first reason is that migrating to a new spot that is, say, 2 degrees cooler on average is easier if that spot is 10 meters away than if it is 1 kilometre away, at 300 meters higher altitude. Thus, complex landscapes may allow persistence of local populations through reshuffling of species on the landscape. A second reason is that populations occupying complex landscapes may differ genetically from those occupying more homogeneous ones. For example, environmental heterogeneity is thought to select for phenotypic plasticity; the ability of a genotype to produce different phenotypes depending on environmental conditions. Furthermore, environmental heterogeneity could select for greater genetic diversity and thus greater abilities to respond to further environmental change.
Contact: Øystein Opedal

Evolutionary perspectives on conservation

In a changing climate, rapid adaptation to cope with e.g. extreme weather may be crucial for survival. The importance of the ability to adapt is illustrated by the world-wide insect population declines, which occur both inside and outside protected areas. Genetic variation provides material for adaptation and is hence necessary for rapid evolutionary response. Maintaining genetic variation is thus pivotal for long-term preservation of biodiversity. We use advanced genomic analyses to address how spatial planning to maintain genetic variation that enables evolutionary adaptation and long-term persistence should be designed. Specifically, we study focal species of the blues (Polyommatini) to address how fragmentation of grazed semi-natural grasslands affects genetic diversity and evolvability. We investigate how reductions in genetic variation compared to historical levels depend on habitat fragmentation, species and historical levels of genetic variation. We also aim to address what landscape properties and species characteristics affect gene flow. Financed by Oscar & Lili Lamms Minne.
Contact: Anna Runemark

Diversification of butterfly traits across space and time.

We study spatial and temporal variation in several insect traits, with implication for diversification and conservation. We have a long-term focus on the evolutionary ecology of butterflies, and, in a long-term project, we have aimed our studies at understanding the evolution of host preference variation of Pieris butterflies, which are utilizing multiple plants of the Brassicaceae family. Traditionally, studies of host plant related diversification and specialization of phytophagous insects have been focusing on the evolution of the larval ability to digest and develop on different host plant species. Surprisingly, fewer studies have investigated the evolution of host plant preferences as a driver of host specialization, even though the female host plant choice represent the first step of the filtering process in the insect host choice, since females of most species decide on which host individuals her offspring will be feeding.
Recently, in collaboration with Erik Svensson, we have initiated studies on the evolution of female color polymorphism in the common blue butterfly (Polyommatus icarus), and, in collaboration with Richard Walters (CEC), we recently received a grant from the FORMAS research council to increase the precision of models of butterfly movement in disturbed landscapes.
Contact: Magne Friberg

Recent research outputs

Io S. Deflem, Elina Bennetsen, Øystein H. Opedal, Federico C.F. Calboli, Otso Ovaskainen, Gerlinde Van Thuyne, Filip A.M. Volckaert & Joost A.M. Raeymaekers, 2021 Mar 27, In: Biodiversity and Conservation. 30, 5, p. 1457–1478

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Øystein H. Opedal, Kristin O. Nystuen, Dagmar Hagen, Håkon Holien, Mia Vedel Sørensen, Simone I. Lang, Sigrid Lindmo, G. Richard Strimbeck & Bente J. Graae, 2021 Feb, In: Nordic Journal of Botany. 39, 2, e02989.

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Hampus Petrén, Gabriele Gloder, Diana Posledovich, Christer Wiklund & Magne Friberg, 2021 Jan, In: Ecology and Evolution. 11, 1, p. 242-251 10 p.

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

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