"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 new study published this week.
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.
Researchers from Oregon State University and the Smithsonian Institution announced their results in this week’s issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a professional journal. “To our knowledge, these findings provide the first evidence of pollinator recognition in plants,” they wrote.
Matt Betts, an associate professor in the Oregon State University College of Forestry is the lead author. Adam S. Hadley, also at Oregon State, and W. John Kress of the Smithsonian Institution are co-authors. The National Science Foundation provided support for the research.
In experiments at the Las Cruces Biological Station in Costa Rica, Betts and Hadley began by trying to pollinate Heliconia plants by hand. Although such methods are commonly used in plant propagation, the researchers were puzzled by their lack of success. So in an enclosure known as an aviary, they 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 percent success in fertilizing the plants.
By controlling the sources of pollen, the researchers excluded the possibility that fertilization could be explained by specific birds carrying higher quality pollen".