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Am Nat. 2011 Feb;177(2):258-72. doi: 10.1086/657993.

Dosage-dependent impacts of a floral volatile compound on pollinators, larcenists, and the potential for floral evolution in the alpine skypilot Polemonium viscosum.

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Division of Biological Sciences, University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri 65211, USA.


All volatile organic compounds (VOCs) vary quantitatively, yet how such variation affects their ecological roles is unknown. Because floral VOCs are cues for both pollinators and floral antagonists, variation in emission may have major consequences for costs and benefits in plant-pollinator interactions. In Polemonium viscosum, the emission rate for the floral VOC 2-phenylethanol (2PE) spans more than two orders of magnitude. We investigated the ecological and evolutionary impacts of this immense phenotypic variation. The emission rate of 2PE varies independently of nectar rewards and thus is uninformative of profitability. Emission is elevated in flowers that are morphologically vulnerable to ant larcenists, suggesting that chemical deterrence may compensate for weak physical barriers. In nature, plants emitting more 2PE than their neighbors escape ant damage. Flower-damaging ants die when exposed to 2PE in the laboratory, and they avoid high 2PE emitters in the field. High 2PE also reduces bumblebee visitation and pollination, suggesting an ecological cost of defense in pollinator service. However, at more moderate emission rates, 2PE enhances the amount of nectar left in flowers, at no pollination cost. In conclusion, repellency of 2PE is highly sensitive to dosage, giving it a key role in shaping ecological interactions between skypilot plants and their floral visitors.

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