Plasticity in flower size as an adaptation to variation in pollinator specificity

Tanmay Dixit*, Jana M. Riederer, Stanley Quek, Kate Belford, Tadzio Tavares de Wand, Roxanne Sicat, Chris D. Jiggins

*Corresponding author for this work

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1. Mutualisms, including plant-pollinator interactions, are an important component of ecosystems. 2. Plants can avoid the costs of variation in pollinator benefit by maintaining specificity. 3. We hypothesise a novel mechanism to ensure specificity, which takes advantage of the cognitive abilities of specific pollinators to exclude non-specific flower visitors. 4. Inflorescences of the tropical vine genusPsiguriaproduce flowers at regular intervals, with subsequent flowers smaller than predecessors. 5. The principle pollinators,Heliconiusspp., possess an excellent spatial memory. 6. Therefore, decreasing flower size may ensure specific pollination: onceHeliconiusindividuals have learnt the location of an inflorescence they will return, but inconspicuous flowers should reduce visits by non-specific pollinators with poorer spatial memories. 7. We tested the predictions of this hypothesis with field experiments in Panama. We confirmed that flowers on inflorescences are smaller than their predecessors. 8. Paired experiments showed that larger flowers attracted more pollinators and that the presence of an initial large flower increased subsequent visitation byHeliconiusspp. to small flowers, indicating learning behaviour. 9. These results suggest that learning behaviour and decreasing flower size maintain visits from specific pollinators while reducing those from non-specific pollinators. We propose this as a novel mechanism for promoting pollinator specificity and discuss its ecological significance.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1367-1372
Number of pages6
JournalEcological entomology
Issue number6
Early online date22-Jul-2020
Publication statusPublished - Dec-2020


  • Coevolution
  • Heliconius
  • learning
  • mutualism
  • plasticity
  • pollination

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