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Ruby-throated Hummingbird engaging in a little pollination. Photo: <a href="">Kelly Colgan Azar</a>, CC some rights reserved
Ruby-throated Hummingbird engaging in a little pollination. Photo: Kelly Colgan Azar, CC some rights reserved

Natural Selections: Unusual pollinators

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Everyone is familiar with how bees and insects distribute pollen from one flower to another, but that's not the only way to get the job done. Some night-blooming plants are pollinated by bats, when bright floral colors are invisible. And hummingbirds might just get their nectar without picking up any pollen. Dr. Curt Stager and Martha Foley discuss the unusual strategies some plants can use to attract and hold the interest of the unusual animals that pollinate them.

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Synopsis of this Natural Selections Conversation:

A flower advertises its presence to pollinators using visual or olfactory cues, bright colors and or attractive scents, because the animals that transport their pollen use vision or smell to find nectar. This is co-evolution, where the flower matches the habits of its pollinator and benefits from it.

According to Dr. Curt Stager, one South African vine that only blooms at night is pollinated by bats and moths. “Bats navigate in the dark, not by vision or even smell, but by radar," says Stager. So in this species there are small depressions on the vine petals that perfectly reflect the high frequency sound emitted by the bat back to its source. The bat is attracted to the flower and sticks its head inside. The pressure from the bat’s snout causes the stamens to bend over and dab pollen on it. Then the pollen-laden bat flies on to the next vine. These petal depressions work in a multidirectional way, so if a bat is at an angle, its voice is still reflected. This is known as the Cat’s Eye Effect.

A flower's shape and size may co-evolve to match the bill or tongue of the species pollinating it, but jewelweed turns this idea upside down. In order to get to its nectar easily, a hummingbird would need a curved bill. But the hummingbird species that comes to it has a straight bill. This design forces the bird to do more work. The bird sticks its bill in and sticks its tongue out, pressing it against the back wall. This pushes the flower away due to the pressure. The flower bounces up and down when the humming bird pokes at it, dabbing pollen on the bird’s bill. This would not happen if the hummingbird had a curved bill, which is why this design is more beneficial to the flower.

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