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Changing how biologists view flowers—color as a perception not a trait

journal contribution
posted on 2021-01-04, 01:21 authored by JE Garcia, Ryan PhillipsRyan Phillips, CI Peter, AG Dyer
© Copyright © 2020 Garcia, Phillips, Peter and Dyer. Studying flower color evolution can be challenging as it may require several different areas of expertise, ranging from botany and ecology through to understanding color sensing of insects and thus how they perceive flower signals. Whilst studies often view plant-pollinator interactions from the plant's perspective, there is growing evidence from psychophysics studies that pollinators have their own complex decision making processes depending on their perception of color, viewing conditions and individual experience. Mimicry of rewarding flowers by orchids is a fascinating system for studying the pollinator decision making process, as rewarding model flowering plants and mimics can be clearly characterized. Here, we focus on a system where the rewardless orchid Eulophia zeyheriana mimics the floral color of Wahlenbergia cuspidata (Campanulaceae) to attract its pollinator species, a halictid bee. Using recently developed psychophysics principles, we explore whether the color perception of an insect observer encountering variable model and mimic flower color signals can help explain why species with non-rewarding flowers can exist in nature. Our approach involves the use of color discrimination functions rather than relying on discrimination thresholds, and the use of statistical distributions to model intraspecific color variations. Results show that whilst an experienced insect observer can frequently make accurate discriminations between mimic and rewarding flowers, intraspecific signal variability leads to overlap in the perceived color, which will frequently confuse an inexperienced pollinator. This new perspective provides an improved way to incorporate pollinator decision making into the complex field of plant-pollinator interactions.


AD was supported by the Australian Research Council Discovery Projects grant DP160100161.



  • School of Life Sciences

Publication Date



Frontiers in Plant Science



Article Number



15p. (p. 1-15)


Frontiers Media



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