Journal Article

A generalized pollination system in the tropics: bats, birds and <i>Aphelandra acanthus</i>

Nathan Muchhala, Angelica Caiza, Juan Carlos Vizuete and James D. Thomson

in Annals of Botany

Published on behalf of The Annals of Botany Company

Volume 103, issue 9, pages 1481-1487
Published in print June 2009 | ISSN: 0305-7364
Published online January 2009 | e-ISSN: 1095-8290 | DOI:
A generalized pollination system in the tropics: bats, birds and Aphelandra acanthus

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  • Ecology and Conservation
  • Evolutionary Biology
  • Plant Sciences and Forestry


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Background and Aims

A number of different types of flower-visiting animals coexist in any given habitat. What evolutionary and ecological factors influence the subset of these that a given plant relies on for its pollination? Addressing this question requires a mechanistic understanding of the importance of different potential pollinators in terms of visitation rate (pollinator ‘quantity’) and effectiveness at transferring pollen (pollinator ‘quality’) is required. While bat-pollinated plants typically are highly specialized to bats, there are some instances of bat-pollinated plants that use other pollinators as well. These generalized exceptions tend to occur in habitats where bat ‘quantity’ is poor due to low or fluctuating bat densities.


Aphelandra acanthus occurs in tropical cloud forests with relatively high densities of bat visitors, yet displays a mix of floral syndrome characteristics, suggesting adaptation to multiple types of pollinators. To understand its pollination system better, aspects of its floral phenology and the ‘quantity’ and ‘quality’ components of pollination by its floral visitors are studied here.

Key Results

Flowers were found to open and senesce throughout the day and night, although anther dehiscence was restricted to the late afternoon and night. Videotaping reveals that flowers are visited nocturnally by bats and moths, and diurnally by hummingbirds. Analysis of pollen deposition shows that bats regularly transfer large amounts of conspecific pollen, while hummingbirds occasionally transfer some pollen, and moths rarely do so.


Hummingbirds and bats were comparable in terms of pollination ‘quantity’, while bats were the most effective in terms of ‘quality’. Considering these components together, bats are responsible for approx. 70 % of A. acanthus pollination. However, bats also transferred remarkably large amounts of foreign pollen along with the conspecific grains (three of four grains were foreign). It is suggested that the negative effects of interspecific pollen transfer may decrease bat ‘quality’ for A. acanthus, and thus select for generalization on multiple pollinators instead of specialization on bats.

Keywords: Specialization; generalization; pollinator effectiveness; hummingbirds; floral syndrome; bat pollination; chiropterophily; ornithophily; cloud forest; heterospecific pollen transfer

Journal Article.  4382 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Ecology and Conservation ; Evolutionary Biology ; Plant Sciences and Forestry

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