BACKGROUNDChemical and biological processes dictate an individual organism's ability to recognize and respond to other organisms. A small but growing body of evidence suggests that plants may be capable of recognizing and responding to neighboring plants in a species specific fashion. Here we tested whether or not individuals of the invasive exotic weed, Centaurea maculosa, would modulate their defensive strategy in response to different plant neighbors.RESULTSIn the greenhouse, C. maculosa individuals were paired with either conspecific (C. maculosa) or heterospecific (Festuca idahoensis) plant neighbors and elicited with the plant defense signaling molecule methyl jasmonate to mimic insect herbivory. We found that elicited C. maculosa plants grown with conspecific neighbors exhibited increased levels of total phenolics, whereas those grown with heterospecific neighbors allocated more resources towards growth. To further investigate these results in the field, we conducted a metabolomics analysis to explore chemical differences between individuals of C. maculosa growing in naturally occurring conspecific and heterospecific field stands. Similar to the greenhouse results, C. maculosa individuals accumulated higher levels of defense-related secondary metabolites and lower levels of primary metabolites when growing in conspecific versus heterospecific field stands. Leaf herbivory was similar in both stand types; however, a separate field study positively correlated specialist herbivore load with higher densities of C. maculosa conspecifics.CONCLUSIONSOur results suggest that an individual C. maculosa plant can change its defensive strategy based on the identity of its plant neighbors. This is likely to have important consequences for individual and community success.