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Coloured nectar: distribution, ecology, and evolution of an enigmatic floral trait




While coloured nectar has been known to science at least since 1785, it has only recently received focused scientific attention. However, information about this rare floral trait is scattered and hard to find. Here, we document coloured nectar in 67 taxa worldwide, with a wide taxonomical and geographical distribution. We summarise what is currently known about coloured nectar in each of the lineages where it occurs. The most common nectar colours are in the spectrum from yellow to red, but also brown, black, green, and blue colours are found. Colour intensity of the nectar varies, sometimes even within one taxa, as does the level of contrast between flower petals and nectar. Coloured nectar has evolved independently throughout the angiosperms at least 15 times at the level of family, and is in many cases correlated with one or more of three parameters: (1) vertebrate pollination, known or hypothesised, (2) insularity – many species are from islands or insular mainland habitats, and (3) altitude – many species are found at relatively high altitudes. We discuss the evolution and speculate on possible ecological functions of coloured nectar. Apart from being a non-functional, perhaps pleiotropic, trait, we present several hypotheses on possible ecological functions of coloured nectar. Firstly, for some plant species it can be interpreted as an honest signal, leading to high pollination efficiency. Secondly, it can function as a deterrent against nectar-thieves or inefficient pollinators, thus acting as a floral filter. Thirdly, nectar colour-pigments can have anti-microbial qualities that may protect the nectar in long-lived flowers. Neither of these possibilities are mutually exclusive. Recent studies have provided experimental evidence for the first two hypotheses, and we suggest promising avenues for future research into this little-known floral trait.