The Ecology of Floral Signals in Penstemon digitalis

University dissertation from Uppsala : Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis

Abstract: In this thesis, I combined field observations and lab experiments to explore the ecological significance of floral signals in a North American wildflower, Penstemon digitalis. More specifically, to determine the potential mechanisms driving selection on floral scent, I studied how scent mediates interactions with pollinators and antagonists by (1) observing spatiotemporal variation in scent emission (2), floral volatile ability to suppress microbes (3) the honest advertisement of nectar, and (4) if scent could aid pollinator learning by reinforcing visual signals.Scent sampling of flower development, flower tissues, rewards and inflorescence day/night emission, revealed a complexity in floral scent composition and emission that could reflect several ecological functions. The floral bouquet of P. digitalis was strongest when flowers opened, primarily emitted from flower nectaries and was strongest during the day when pollinators are most active, suggesting a role in plant-pollinator interactions.Because linalool was one of the few floral compounds found in nectar where microbe growth can degrade the pollinator reward, I studied its role in plant-microbe interactions. Bacteria strains isolated from floral and vegetative tissues were exposed to varying concentrations of nectar volatiles: linalool and methyl nicotinate. Linalool inhibited bacteria growth rate from all tissue origins whereas methyl nicotinate had little effect, suggesting that microbes could drive selection on linalool emission strength.   To determine the extent that linalool could honestly signal nectar availability, linalool-nectar associations were measured for inflorescences and flowers. Linalool predicted inflorescence nectar availability but not flower, exposing a limit to its honesty. Pollinator Bombus impatiens could use linalool as a foraging signal at varying concentrations, suggesting linalool could be learned and used to choose the most rewarding plants.   Measurement and comparison of signal-reward associations for both olfactory and visual signals/cues of P. digitalis displays found display size and linalool honest indicators of nectar. Lab behaviour experiments showed multiple signals correlated with reward could increase bumblebee foraging efficiency and promote learning, providing an explanation for why floral displays are complex and consist of multiple signals.   Together my results show that an integrated approach is required to understand the mechanisms driving the evolution of the floral phenotype.