Floral signposts: testing the significance of visual ‘nectar guides’ for pollinator behaviour and plant fitness

Dennis M. Hansen, Timotheüs Van der Niet, Steven D. Johnson


Nectar guides, contrasting patterns on flowers that supposedly direct pollinators towards a concealed nectar reward, are taxonomically widespread. However, there have been few studies of their functional significance and effects on plant fitness. Most previous studies focused on pollinator behaviour and used artificial flowers in laboratory settings. We experimentally investigated the role of putative nectar guides in a natural system: the South African iris Lapeirousia oreogena, whose flowers have a clearly visible pattern of six white arrow-markings pointing towards the narrow entrance of the long corolla tube, and its sole pollinator, a long-proboscid nemestrinid fly. We painted over none, some or all of the white arrow-markings with ink that matched the colour of the corolla background. Although arrow-marking removal had little effect on the approaches by flies to flowers from a distance, it dramatically reduced the likelihood of proboscis insertion. Export of pollen dye analogue (an estimate of male fitness) was reduced to almost zero in flowers from which all nectar guides had been removed, and fruit set (a measure of female fitness) was also significantly reduced. Our results confirm that the markings on L. oreogena flowers serve as nectar guides and suggest that they are under strong selective maintenance through both male and female fitness components in this pollination system.

  • Received June 28, 2011.
  • Accepted July 5, 2011.
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