Some Tropical Plants Pick the Best Hummingbirds to Pollinate Flowers

Science and Children, Summer 2015 | Go to article overview

Some Tropical Plants Pick the Best Hummingbirds to Pollinate Flowers


Rather than just waiting patiently for any pollinator that comes their way to start the next generation of seeds, some plants appear to recognize the best suitors and "turn on" to increase the chance of success, according to a recent study.

Being picky may increase access to genetic diversity and thus give the plants a competitive advantage over their neighbors, but there is a risk, the researchers say. If the preferred pollinators decline for any reason, the plants may not reproduce as easily and could decline as well.

These findings stem from the discovery that the showy red and yellow blooms of Heliconia tortuosa, an exotic tropical plant, recognize certain hummingbirds by the way the birds sip the flowers' nectar. The plants respond by allowing pollen to germinate, ultimately increasing the chances for successful seed formation.

"To our knowledge, these findings provide the first evidence of pollinator recognition in plants," the authors wrote.

In experiments at the Las Cruces Biological Station in Costa Rica, lead author Matt Betts and coauthor Adam S. Hadley exposed Heliconia to six species of hummingbirds and a butterfly. The team discovered that two types of hummers--violet sabrewings and green hermits--achieved more than 80% success in fertilizing the plants.

"The ones that turned it on tended to have long, curved bills that could reach the nectar," says Betts. …

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