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New Phytol. 2009 Aug;183(3):530-45. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-8137.2009.02914.x. Epub 2009 Jun 22.

Darwin's beautiful contrivances: evolutionary and functional evidence for floral adaptation.

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  • 1Department of Biological Sciences, University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada.


Although not 'a professed botanist', Charles Darwin made seminal contributions to understanding of floral and inflorescence function while seeking evidence of adaptation by natural selection. This review considers the legacy of Darwin's ideas from three perspectives. First, we examine the process of floral and inflorescence adaptation by surveying studies of phenotypic selection, heritability and selection responses. Despite widespread phenotypic and genetic capacity for natural selection, only one-third of estimates indicate phenotypic selection. Second, we evaluate experimental studies of floral and inflorescence function and find that they usually demonstrate that reproductive traits represent adaptations. Finally, we consider the role of adaptation in floral diversification. Despite different diversification modes (coevolution, divergent use of the same pollen vector, pollinator shifts), evidence of pollination ecotypes and phylogenetic patterns suggests that adaptation commonly contributes to floral diversity. Thus, this review reveals a contrast between the inconsistent occurrence of phenotypic selection and convincing experimental and comparative evidence that floral traits are adaptations. Rather than rejecting Darwin's hypotheses about floral evolution, this contrast suggests that the tempo of creative selection varies, with strong, consistent selection during episodes of diversification, but relatively weak and inconsistent selection during longer, 'normal' periods of relative phenotypic stasis.

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