Chemical Ecology of Mammals

All mammals depend on plants at some part of their food chain, either directly or indirectly. Some mammalian species are very conservative with their food choices being thus close to specialist feeders, while others construct their daily diet from multiple plant species and even plant parts. The exact reasons for these feeding patterns or their effects on herbivores are largely unknown. For instance, in ruminant research it has been typically enough to use crude measures such as “crude protein” and “crude fiber” to describe the quality of ruminant feeds. Obviously these measures are handy to use and they provide simple results that can be compared across diets and studies. But they will not reveal any of the complex chemistry that takes place e.g. in the rumen, abomasum and small intestine. Shortly, you can only understand what you can measure.

We at the Natural Chemistry Research Group try to build detailed understanding of both the dietary chemistry of mammalian feeds and the fate of the dietary compounds once ingested by the mammals. In this respect all plant species are of course different, i.e. we cannot look only for similar constituents between the diets, but try to reveal the relevant components that make the diets different. More specifically we aim at looking at those metabolites that make a difference during diet digestion. We believe this approach will in the end produce deeper understanding of the effects of dietary compounds than the approach where only rough total sums of dietary components are estimated and pooled.

We have started our mammalian approach relatively recently, but are now moving forward in this area quite rapidly. So far we have obtained our best results with our collaborators who are specialized on ruminant research, since you cannot claim to be an expert yourself on all areas of science. Now we can clearly see how the ruminant research as a whole will benefit in the future from the detailed research we are able to conduct with known tannin structures, starting from in vitro level and continuing to more challenging in vivo work. We hope to obtain similar breakthroughs with Eucalyptus-Koala Interactions and with the work we have started on the Effects of Plant Metabolites on Primates. All these areas benefit significantly of our earlier research on plant-insect interactions.