Density-dependent pollen limitation and reproductive assurance in a wind-pollinated herb with contrasting sexual systems


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1. Wind pollination is thought to have evolved in response to selection for mechanisms to promote pollination success, when animal pollinators become scarce or unreliable. We might thus expect wind-pollinated plants to be less prone to pollen limitation than their insect-pollinated counterparts. Yet, if pollen loads on stigmas of wind-pollinated species decline with distance from pollen donors, seed set might nevertheless be pollen-limited in populations of plants that cannot self-fertilize their progeny, but not in self-compatible hermaphroditic populations.

2. Here, we test this hypothesis by comparing pollen limitation between dioecious and hermaphroditic (monoecious) populations of the wind-pollinated herb Mercurialis annua.

3. In natural populations, seed set was pollen-limited in low-density patches of dioecious, but not hermaphroditic, M. annua, a finding consistent with patterns of distance-dependent seed set by females in an experimental array. Nevertheless, seed set was incomplete in both dioecious and hermaphroditic populations, even at high local densities. Further, both factors limited the seed set of females and hermaphrodites, after we manipulated pollen and resource availability in a common garden experiment.

4.Synthesis. Our results are consistent with the idea that pollen limitation plays a role in the evolution of combined vs. separate sexes in M. annua. Taken together, they point to the potential importance of pollen transfer between flowers on the same plant (geitonogamy) by wind as a mechanism of reproductive assurance and to the dual roles played by pollen and resource availability in limiting seed set. Thus, seed set can be pollen-limited in sparse populations of a wind-pollinated species, where mates are rare or absent, having potentially important demographic and evolutionary implications.