How generalists coexist; the role of floral phenotype and spatial factors in the pollination systems of two Ranunculus species

Richard P. Kipling, John Warren*

*Corresponding author for this work

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Competition for pollinators between phenotypically similar flowers is believed to play an important role in floral trait diversification in the angiosperms. However, in many plant communities, species with apparently similar floral phenotypes and generalist pollination systems co-flower. Here, the pollination systems of Ranunculus acris L. and Ranunculus repens L. were investigated to determine the factors enabling the species to coexist within apparently overlapping pollination niches.


Sympatrically flowering populations of R. acris and R. repens were investigated at three study sites in West Wales. The floral phenotypes of the two species were compared using measurements of floral morphology and spectral analyses of petal reflectance, using principal component analysis and bee and fly colour-space models. Evidence of inter-specific discrimination by foraging insects was tested for in the field and using floral arrays. The relative roles of behavioural constancy and spatial patchiness in maintaining pollinator fidelity were estimated.

Important Findings

The floral phenotypes of R. acris and R. repens differed significantly. Social bees were highly constant when foraging at flowers of the two species and patchy floral distribution explained some of the observed fidelity. Dipterans visiting mixed floral arrays appeared to discriminate between the species, visiting more R. acris than R. repens flowers, but there was no difference in the number of visits to single-species arrays. Social bees were more likely to display constancy to flowers of R. repens in the field.

Patchiness in floral distribution, subtle differences in floral phenotype, pollinator preferences and behavioural constancy are all likely to contribute to the continued coexistence of R. acris and R. repens, despite apparent overlap in their pollination niches. Such differences have the potential to facilitate the maintenance of species diversity in plant communities, even where plants appear to share similar floral phenotypes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)480-489
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Plant Ecology
Issue number5
Early online date25 Oct 2013
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2014


  • floral phenotype
  • pollination niche
  • Ranunculus
  • functional specialization
  • constancy


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