Journal of Chemical Ecology

, Volume 32, Issue 3, pp 547–564 | Cite as

Where did the Chili Get its Spice? Biogeography of Capsaicinoid Production in Ancestral Wild Chili Species

  • Joshua J. TewksburyEmail author
  • Carlos Manchego
  • David C. Haak
  • Douglas J. Levey


The biogeography of pungency in three species of wild chili in the chaco and surrounding highland habitats of southeastern Bolivia is described. We report that Capsicum chacoense, C. baccatum, and C. eximium are polymorphic for production of capsaicin and its analogs, such that completely pungent and completely nonpungent individuals co-occur in some populations. In C. chacoense, the density of plants and the proportion of pungent plants increased with elevation. Above 900 m, all individuals in all populations except two were pungent; nonpungent individuals in at least one of the two polymorphic populations were likely a result of spreading by humans. The occurrence of pungent and nonpungent individuals in three species of ancestral Capsicum and the geographic variation of pungency within species suggest that production of capsaicin and its analogs entails both costs and benefits, which shift from one locality to another. Determining the selection pressures behind such shifts is necessary to understand the evolution of pungency in chilies.

Key Words

Capsaicin capsaicinoid PSM fruit secondary metabolite fruit chemistry intraspecific variation biogeography spice Capsicum chacoense Capsicum baccatum Capsicum eximium 



This research was made possible through grants from the National Science Foundation (DEB-0129168) and the National Geographic Society Committee for Research and Exploration (7190-02). We thank Paul Martin, Robert Dobbs, Ian Horn, Meribeth Huzinga, Alex Jahn, Uco Sapag, and Don Odon for assistance in the field. We thank Damian Rumiz, Andy Noss, and Natalia Araujo, as well as WCS Bolivia, Fundación Amigos de la Naturaleza, and Museo de Historia Natural “Noel Kempf Mercado” for logistic support. We thank two anonymous reviewers for helpful critiques of early versions of this manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science + Business Media, Inc. 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  • Joshua J. Tewksbury
    • 1
    Email author
  • Carlos Manchego
    • 2
  • David C. Haak
    • 1
  • Douglas J. Levey
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of BiologyUniversity of WashingtonSeattleUSA
  2. 2.Departamento de Geografia e InformaticaMuseo Noel Kempff Mercado (U.A.G.R.M.)Santa CruzBolivia
  3. 3.Department of ZoologyUniversity of FloridaGainesvilleUSA

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