Dark Matters: Challenges of Nocturnal Communication Between Plants and Animals in Delivery of Pollination Services

Yale J Biol Med. 2018 Mar 28;91(1):33-42. eCollection 2018 Mar.


The night is a special niche characterized by dim light, lower temperatures, and higher humidity compared to the day. Several animals have made the transition from the day into the night and have acquired unique adaptations to cope with the challenges of performing nocturnal activities. Several plant species have opted to bloom at night, possibly as a response to aridity to prevent excessive water loss through evapotranspiration since flowering is often a water-demanding process, or to protect pollen from heat stress. Nocturnal pollinators have visual adaptations to function under dim light conditions but may also trade off vision against olfaction when they are dependent on nectar-rewarding and scented flowers. Nocturnal pollinators may use CO2 and humidity cues emanating from freshly-opened flowers as indicators of nectar-rich resources. Some endothermic nocturnal insect pollinators are attracted to thermogenic flowers within which they remain to obtain heat as a reward to increase their energy budget. This review focuses on mechanisms that pollinators use to find flowers at night, and the signals that nocturnally blooming flowers may employ to attract pollinators under dim light conditions. It also indicates gaps in our knowledge. While millions of years of evolutionary time have given pollinators and plants solutions to the delivery of pollination services and to the offering of appropriate rewards, this history of successful evolution is being threatened by artificial light at night. Excessive and inappropriate illumination associated with anthropogenic activities has resulted in significant light pollution which serves to undermine life processes governed by dim light.

Keywords: ALAN; climate change; floral traits; heat stress; light pollution; nocturnal pollination; olfaction; sensory biology; vision.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Communication*
  • Darkness*
  • Flowers / physiology
  • Plants / metabolism*
  • Pollination / physiology*