Phyllis D COLEY portrait
  • Research Affiliate, The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Panama
  • Distinguished Prof Emeritus, School Of Biological Sciences

Research Summary

Our research focuses on the ecology and evolution of tropical rainforest plants and their interaction with herbivores. Using a phylogenetic context, we characterize plant defenses, especially secondary metabolites and link this with herbivore host choice. We hope to shed light on factors driving high local plant diversity in the tropics, evolutionary impacts of plants and herbivores on each other, and how these interactions may promote speciation.


  • BA, Biology, Hapshire College, Amherst, MA
  • PhD, Biology, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL


Most of my work has focused on the role of defenses in protecting plants from damage by herbivores and pathogens. My Ph.D. research at the University of Chicago quantified patterns of plant defenses and tried to understand how selection may have favored different defense investments in species of different life histories and habitats (e.g. 'resource availability theory').

A major current focus in the lab is to characterize chemical defenses and link these to other plant traits, within a phylogenetic context. We are focusing on the speciose and widespread tropical tree genus Inga (Fabaceae) as a model to understand how herbivores may be driving rapid evolution of defenses and how this might contribute to community assembly and speciation in the genus.

I have chosen to address these questions in tropical rain forests because the high diversity allows multi-species comparisons, and because biotic interactions have played a particularly strong role in shaping tropical communities.

Most Recent Publications

Endara, MJ, Nicholls, JA, Coley, PD, Forrister, DL, Younkin, GC, Dexter, KG, Kidner, CA, Pennington, RT, Stone, GN & Kursar, TA (2018). Tracking of host defenses and phylogeny during the radiation of neotropical Inga-feeding sawflies (Hymenoptera; Argidae). Frontiers in Plant Science. Front. Plant Sci. Published, 08/23/2018. 

Coley, PD, Endara, MJ & Kursar, TA (2018). Consequences of interspecific variation in defenses and herbivore host choice for the ecology and evolution of Inga, a speciose rainforest tree. Oecologia. Published, 06/2018. 

Endara, M-J, Coley, PD, Wiggins, NL, Forrister, DL, Younkin, GC, Nicholls, JA, Pennington, TR, Dexter, KG, Kidner, CA, Stone, GN & Kursar, TA (2018). Chemocoding as an identification tool where morphological- and DNA-based methods fall short: Inga as a case study. New Phytologist. Published, 02/13/2018.