Nectar-feeding bird and bat niches in two worlds: pantropical comparisons of vertebrate pollination systems


*Theodore H. Fleming, Department of Biology, University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL 33124, USA.


Aim  We review several aspects of the structure of regional and local assemblages of nectar-feeding birds and bats and their relationships with food plants to determine the extent to which evolutionary convergence has or has not occurred in the New and Old World tropics.

Location  Our review is pantropical in extent and also includes the subtropics of South Africa and eastern Australia. Within the tropics, it deals mostly with lowland forest habitats.

Methods  An extensive literature review was conducted to compile data bases on the regional and local species richness of nectar-feeding birds and bats, pollinator sizes, morphology, and diets. Coefficients of variation (CVs) were used to quantify the morphospace occupied by the various families of pollinators. The extent to which plants have become evolutionarily specialized for vertebrate pollination was explored using several criteria: number and diversity of growth forms of plant families providing food for all the considered pollinator families; the most common flower morphologies visited by all the considered pollinator families; and the number of plant families that contain genera with both bird- and bat-specialized species.

Results  Vertebrate pollinator assemblages in the New World tropics differ from those in the Old World in terms of their greater species richness, the greater morphological diversity of their most specialized taxa, and the greater degree of taxonomic and ecological diversity and morphological specialization of their food plants. Within the Old World tropics, Africa contains more specialized nectar-feeding birds than Asia and Australasia; Old World nectar-feeding bats are everywhere less specialized than their New World counterparts.

Main conclusions  We propose that two factors – phylogenetic history and spatio-temporal predictability (STP) of flower resources – largely account for hemispheric and regional differences in the structure of vertebrate pollinator assemblages. Greater resource diversity and resource STP in the New World have favoured the radiation of small, hovering nectar-feeding birds and bats into a variety of relatively specialized feeding niches. In contrast, reduced resource diversity and STP in aseasonal parts of Asia as well as in Australasia have favoured the evolution of larger, non-hovering birds and bats with relatively generalized feeding niches. Tropical Africa more closely resembles the Neotropics than Southeast Asia and Australasia in terms of resource STP and in the niche structure of its nectar-feeding birds but not its flower-visiting bats.