Bene'fit' assessment in pollination coevolution: mechanistic perspectives on hummingbird bill-flower matching


One of the reasons why flowering plants became the most diverse group of land plants is their association with animals to reproduce. The earliest examples of this mutualism involved insects foraging for food from plants and, in the process, pollinating them. Vertebrates are latecomers to these mutualisms, but birds, in particular, present a wide variety of nectar-feeding clades that have adapted to solve similar challenges. Such challenges include surviving on small caloric rewards widely scattered across the landscape, matching their foraging strategy to nectar replenishment rate, and efficiently collecting this liquid food from well-protected chambers deep inside flowers. One particular set of convergent traits among plants and their bird pollinators has been especially well studied: the match between the shape and size of bird bills and ornithophilous flowers. Focusing on a highly specialized group, hummingbirds, we examine the expected benefits from bill-flower matching, with a strong focus on the benefits to the hummingbird and how to quantify them. Explanations for the coevolution of bill-flower matching include 1) that the evolution of traits by bird-pollinated plants, such as long and thin corollas, prevents less efficient pollinators (e.g., insects) from accessing the nectar, and 2) that increased matching, as a result of reciprocal adaptation, benefits both the bird (nectar extraction efficiency) and the plant (pollen transfer). In addition to nectar feeding, we discuss how interference and exploitative competition also play a significant role in the evolution and maintenance of trait matching. We present hummingbird-plant interactions as a model system to understand how trait matching evolves and how pollinator behavior can modify expectations based solely on morphological matching, and discuss the implications of this behavioral modulation for the maintenance of specialization. While this perspective piece directly concerns hummingbird-plant interactions, the implications are much broader. Functional trait matching is likely common in coevolutionary interactions (e.g., in predator-prey interactions), yet the physical mechanisms underlying trait matching are understudied and rarely quantified. We summarize existing methods and present novel approaches that can be used to quantify key benefits to interacting partners in a variety of ecological systems.



Document Type





Behavioral plasticity, Bill-corolla fit, Hummingbird-pollinated plants, Mutualism, Nectarivory, Trait matching

Publication Date


Journal Title

Integrative and Comparative Biology