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Open Access Research article

Evolution of sexual mimicry in the orchid subtribe orchidinae: the role of preadaptations in the attraction of male bees as pollinators

Florian P Schiestl1* and Salvatore Cozzolino2

Author Affiliations

1 Institute of Systematic Botany, University of Zürich, Zollikerstrasse 107, CH-8008 Zürich, Switzerland

2 Università degli Studi di Napoli "Federico II", Dipartimento delle Scienze Biologiche, Via Foria 223, 80139 Napoli, Italy

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2008, 8:27  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-8-27

Published: 28 January 2008

Abstract

Background

Within the astonishing diversity of orchid pollination systems, sexual deception is one of the most stunning. An example is the genus Ophrys, where plants attract male bees as pollinators by mimicking female mating signals. Unsaturated hydrocarbons (alkenes) are often the key signal for this chemical mimicry. Here we investigate the evolution of these key compounds within Orchidinae by mapping their production in flowers of selected species onto their estimated phylogeny.

Results

We found that alkenes, at least in trace amounts, were present in 18 of 20 investigated species together representing 10 genera. Thus, the reconstruction of ancestral state for alkene-production showed that this is a primitive character state in Ophrys, and can be interpreted as a preadaptation for the evolution of sexual deception. Four of the investigated species, namely Ophrys sphegodes, Serapias lingua, S. cordigera, and Anacamptis papilionacea, that are pollinated primarily by male bees, produced significantly larger amounts and a greater number of different alkenes than the species pollinated either primarily by female bees or other insects.

Conclusion

We suggest that high amounts of alkenes evolved for the attraction of primarily male bees as pollinators by sensory exploitation, and discuss possible driving forces for the evolution of pollination by male bees.