Biologists Discover That Flower Shapes Evolve to Adapt to Their Pollinators

Meriania hernandoi

Flower of the bee-pollinated species Meriania hernandoi from the Ecuadorian cloud forest. Credit: Agnes Dellinger

Modularity Facilitates Rapid Adaptation of Single Floral Organs to Different Pollinators

The first flowering plants originated more than 140 million years ago in the early Cretaceous. They are the most diverse plant group on Earth with more than 300,000 species. In a new study published in Communications Biology on December 5, 2019, evolutionary biologists around Agnes Dellinger and Jürg Schönenberger from the University of Vienna have analyzed 3-dimensional models of flowers and found that flower shapes can evolve in a modular manner in adaptation to distinct pollinators.


Flower of a passerine-pollinated species of the genus Axinaea. Credit: Agnes Dellinger

Flowering plants are characterized by an astonishing diversity of flowers of different shapes and sizes. This diversity has arisen in adaptation to selection imposed by different pollinators including among others bees, flies, butterflies, hummingbirds, bats or rodents. Although several studies have documented that pollinators can impose strong selection pressures on flowers, our understanding of how flowers diversify remains fragmentary. For example, does the entire flower adapt to a pollinator, or do only some flower parts evolve to fit a pollinator while other flower parts may remain unchanged?

Meriania radula

Flower of the hummingbird- and bat-pollinated species Meriania radula from the Ecuadorian páramo. Credit: Agnes Dellinger

In a recent study, scientists around Agnes Dellinger from the Department of Botany and Biodiversity Research from the University of Vienna investigated flowers of 30 species of a tropical plant group (Merianieae) from the Andes. “Each of these plant species has adapted to pollination by either bees, birds, bats, or rodents,” says Dellinger. Using High-Resolution X-ray computed tomography, the research team produced 3D models of these flowers and used geometric-morphometric methods to analyze differences in flower shape among species with different pollinators.

3D Model Flower

3D-model of a flower of the passerine-pollinated species Axinaea costaricensis from the Costa Rican montane rain forests. Credit: Agnes Dellinger

The researchers could show that flower shapes have evolved in adaptation to the distinct pollinators, but that flower shape evolution was not homogeneous across the flower. In particular, the showy sterile organs of flowers (petals) adapted to the different pollinators more quickly than the rest of the flower: the reproductive organs have evolved more slowly. “This study is among the first to analyze the entire 3-dimensional flower shape, and it will be exciting to see whether similar evolutionary floral modularity exists in other plant groups,” concludes Dellinger.

Reference: “Modularity increases rate of floral evolution and adaptive success for functionally specialized pollination systems” by Agnes S. Dellinger, Silvia Artuso, Susanne Pamperl, Fabián A. Michelangeli, Darin S. Penneys, Diana M. Fernández-Fernández, Marcela Alvear, Frank Almeda, W. Scott Armbruster, Yannick Staeder and Jürg Schönenberger, 5 December 2019, Communications Biology.
DOI: 10.1038/s42003-019-0697-7

1 Comment on "Biologists Discover That Flower Shapes Evolve to Adapt to Their Pollinators"

  1. Bradford Hatcher | December 11, 2019 at 11:32 am | Reply

    The teleological words “to” and “for” need to begone from evolutionary reporting. How about “evolve as adaptations to”?

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