Pollinator-mediated plant coexistence requires high levels of pollinator specialization

Ecology and evolution(2023)

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In pollen-limited plant communities, the foraging behavior of pollinators might mediate coexistence and competitive exclusion of plant species by determining which plants receive conspecific pollen. A key question is whether realistic pollinator foraging behavior promotes coexistence or exclusion of plant species. We use a simulation model to understand how pollinator foraging behavior impacts the coexistence dynamics of pollen-limited plants. To determine whether pollinators are likely to provide a biologically important coexistence mechanism, we compare our results to bee foraging data from the literature and from a novel experimental analysis. Model results indicate that strong specialization at the level of individual foraging paths is required to promote coexistence. However, few empirical studies have robustly quantified within-bout specialization. Species-level data suggest that foraging behavior is sufficient to permit pollinator-mediated coexistence in species-poor plant communities and possibly in diverse communities where congeneric plants co-occur. Our experiments using bumblebees show that individual-level specialization does exist, but not at levels sufficient to substantially impact coexistence dynamics. The literature on specialization within natural foraging paths suffers from key limitations, but overall suggests that pollinator-mediated coexistence should be rare in diverse plant communities.
bumblebees,foraging behavior,intraspecific variation,mutualism,pollen limitation
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