Exploitation of a specialized mutualism by a deceptive orchid

Am J Bot. 2005 Aug;92(8):1342-9. doi: 10.3732/ajb.92.8.1342.


Plants that lack floral rewards may nevertheless attract pollinators through mimetic resemblance to the flowers of co-occurring rewarding plants. We show how a deceptive orchid (Disa nivea) successfully exploits a reciprocally specialized mutualism between a nectar-producing plant (Zaluzianskya microsiphon) and its long-proboscid fly pollinator (Prosoeca ganglbaueri). Disa nivea is a rare southern African orchid known only from habitats that support large populations of Z. microsiphon, which it closely resembles in both general morphology and floral spectral reflectance. Significant covariation in floral traits of Z. microsiphon and D. nivea was detected among populations. Where mimics are uncommon, flies do not appear to discriminate between the flowers of the two species. Pollination success in D. nivea was much higher at a site with abundant Z. microsiphon plants than at a site where Z. microsiphon was rare. Exploitation of a highly specialized mutualism appears to demand a high degree of phenotypic resemblance to a rewarding model by a deceptive mimic, as exemplified by D. nivea. The majority of deceptive orchids, on the other hand, exploit relatively generalized pollination systems and thus require only a vague resemblance to rewarding plants in the community in order to attract pollinators.