Cognition-mediated evolution of low-quality floral nectars

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Science  06 Jan 2017:
Vol. 355, Issue 6320, pp. 75-78
DOI: 10.1126/science.aah4219

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Sweet, but not too sweet

Nectar-feeding pollinators, when given a choice, tend to prefer nectar with high concentrations of sugar. Nectar-producing plants, however, tend to produce more dilute nectar. This mismatch between selective force and trait value has long been seen as an evolutionary paradox. Nachev et al. used a dynamic flower array that evolved in real time in a Costa Rican rainforest to show that the “paradox” is, in fact, driven by pollinator choices (see the Perspective by Farris). Bat pollinators based their choices on small, nonlinear differences in nectar sweetness, which led to selection for less sweet nectar overall.

Science, this issue p. 75; see also p. 25


Plants pollinated by hummingbirds or bats produce dilute nectars even though these animals prefer more concentrated sugar solutions. This mismatch is an unsolved evolutionary paradox. Here we show that lower quality, or more dilute, nectars evolve when the strength of preferring larger quantities or higher qualities of nectar diminishes as magnitudes of the physical stimuli increase. In a virtual evolution experiment conducted in the tropical rainforest, bats visited computer-automated flowers with simulated genomes that evolved relatively dilute nectars. Simulations replicated this evolution only when value functions, which relate the physical stimuli to subjective sensations, were nonlinear. Selection also depended on the supply/demand ratio; bats selected for more dilute nectar when competition for food was higher. We predict such a pattern to generally occur when decision-makers consider multiple value dimensions simultaneously, and increases of psychological value are not fully proportional to increases in physical magnitude.

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