Can short-billed nectar thieving sunbirds replace long-billed sunbird pollinators in transformed landscapes?

22 Jun 2017

Pollinator specialisation through exploitation barriers (such as long floral tubes) does not necessarily mean a lack of pollination when the favoured pollinator is rare or absent. Theory predicts that suboptimal visitors will contribute to plant reproduction in the absence of the most effective pollinator. Here I address these questions with Chasmanthe floribunda a long-tubed plant species in the Cape Floristic Region, which is reliant on one species of pollinator, the long-billed Malachite Sunbird. In contrast to short-billed sunbirds, the Malachite Sunbird occurs in lower abundance or is absent in transformed landscapes. Short-billed sunbirds rob and thieve nectar from long-tubed flowers, but their potential contribution towards pollination is unknown. Experiments assessing seed set after single flower visits were performed to determine whether thieving short-billed sunbirds can act as substitute pollinators. To determine whether short-billed sunbirds reduce pollen limitation in transformed areas, pollen supplementation was done by hand and compared to natural fruit set. Short billed sunbirds are unable to act as substitute pollinators, and seed set is significantly lower in the flowers that they visited, compared to flowers visited by long-billed sunbirds. This is substantiated on a landscape scale, where fruit production in Chasmanthe floribunda could artificially be increased by 35% in transformed landscapes, but not so in natural areas. These findings have important consequences for the management and conservation of long-tubed bird-pollinated plant species that exist in recently transformed landscapes. The potential vulnerability of specialised plant species in transformed landscapes is highlighted.