Responses to olfactory signals reflect network structure of flower-visitor interactions


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1. Network analyses provide insights into the diversity and complexity of ecological interactions and have motivated conclusions about community stability and co-evolution. However, biological traits and mechanisms such as chemical signals regulating the interactions between individual species – the microstructure of a network – are poorly understood.

2. We linked the responses of receivers (flower visitors) towards signals (flower scent) to the structure of a highly diverse natural flower-insect network. For each interaction, we define link temperature – a newly developed metric – as the deviation of the observed interaction strength from neutrality, assuming that animals randomly interact with flowers.

3. Link temperature was positively correlated to the specific visitors’ responses to floral scents, experimentally examined in a mobile olfactometer. Thus, communication between plants and consumers via phytochemical signals reflects a significant part of the microstructure in a complex network. Negative as well as positive responses towards floral scents contributed to these results, where individual experience was important apart from innate behaviour.

4. Our results indicate that: (1) biological mechanisms have a profound impact on the microstructure of complex networks that underlies the outcome of aggregate statistics, and (2) floral scents act as a filter, promoting the visitation of some flower visitors, but also inhibiting the visitation of others.