Flowers choose the best pollinators

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A tropical flower can turn on reproduction after it has been visited by a high-quality pollinator.

Matt Betts

Matthew Betts of Oregon State University in Corvallis and his colleagues focused on the plant Heliconia tortuosa (pictured) and collected 148 of its pollinators, comprising six hummingbird species and one species of butterfly. The animals were cleaned of any pollen and introduced to aviaries containing flowers that had been hand-pollinated. The plants showed signs of successful reproduction only after their nectar had been drunk by hummingbird species with long curved beaks, such as the green hermit (Phaethornis guy; pictured). Hummingbirds without the specialized bills and butterflies took in less nectar and failed to trigger reproduction.

Preferred birds also have the widest ranges, suggesting that the plants are boosting their chances of receiving pollen from distant flowers with more genetic diversity than nearby plants.

Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA (2015)

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