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Orchid pollination: specialization in chance?




Looking for clues to explain the low rate and unpredictability of the pollination of allogamous, epiphytic orchids in the context of the success of the orchid family in general, we compared the pollination of two miniature twig epiphytes in Mexico: Notylia barkeri, a ‘weedy’, rewarding species, and Erycina crista-galli, a rare, deceptive species. We measured the effects of the spatial organization of the flowers and various parameters of visibility and height above the ground in relation to the spatial organization of the seed capsules (which retrospectively measures the activity of the pollinators). The spatial presentation of the flowers of E. crista-galli explained only 5% of the distribution of the seed capsules. For N. barkeri, with compound flowers, the spatial presentation, considering individual flowers or inflorescences, explained 12% and 45% of the distribution of the seed capsules, respectively, and all other interactions between the variables were insignificant. Both the deceptive and reward strategies resulted in the production of large numbers of seeds despite a low pollination percentage (1–5%). Notylia barkeri produced 11.8 (2005–6) and 53.7 (2007–8) times more seeds in total than E. crista-galli. Furthermore, unlike E. crista-galli, N. barkeri responded to loss of individuals after high winds with an increased production of flowers per plant. We suggest that orchids have evolved to specialize in chance, and instead of maximizing pollinator attraction, they maximize the seed production resulting from every casual encounter. © 2010 The Linnean Society of London, Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 2011, 165, 251–266.