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Geographical Aspects of Bird-Flower Coevolution, with Particular Reference to Central America

F. Gary Stiles
Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden
Vol. 68, No. 2 (1981), pp. 323-351
DOI: 10.2307/2398801
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2398801
Page Count: 29
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Geographical Aspects of Bird-Flower Coevolution, with Particular Reference to Central America
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Abstract

The overall objective is to compare the ecological impact of bird-flower coevolution in different geographical areas. However, it is first necessary to define the parameters of such coevolution in broader terms than those of the traditional "syndrome of ornithophily," which focuses very narrowly on some aspects of floral morphology. I recognize three distinct components of flower function: attraction, reward, and filtering mechanisms, and discuss their functioning in an ecological context, and as they relate to the genetic system or "pollination unit" of the plant. Then I turn to nectar-feeding birds, and discuss not only morphological, but ecological and behavioral specializations to flowers as a food source. These discussions develop explicitly my criteria for detecting and evaluating bird-flower coevolution. The different groups of birds known to feed regularly (as opposed to opportunistically) on nectar are then compared according to these criteria, to determine their relative degrees of specialization for, and dependence upon, a high-nectar diet. Different groups are found to vary widely in their degrees of specialization for flower-feeding, and it is evident that bird-flower coevolution has followed very different courses, and led to widely divergent ecological systems in different geographical areas. By any criteria the hummingbirds are the most specialized avian nectarivores, although they are approached in this regard by some members of certain passerine groups, notably among the sunbirds. Several groups of passerine nectarivores also occur with the humming-birds in many New World areas; these groups show low to moderate degrees of specialization for nectarivory, either as pollinators or as parasites on the hummingbird-flower system. The New World tropics thus present a wide range of specializations for flower-feeding in their avifauna, and represent a particularly interesting area for study. Patterns of ornithophily and nectarivory are thus examined in detail for this area, concentrating specifically on Southern Central America, especially Costa Rica. The altitudinal and geographical distributions of the two main groups of hummingbirds, the hermits and nonhermits, are found to differ, as are the taxonomic and ecological affinities of their primary foodplants. The hermits are most numerous in wet lowlands and the adjacent foothills, and are primarily associated with large monocotyledonous herbs, notably Heliconia. The nonhermits reach their greatest taxonomic and ecological diversity in the lower middle elevations, and are the only group present at high elevations; they seem to have coevolved with the flowers of a variety of dicot families, and the bromeliads among the monocots. Passerine nectarivores occur primarily as parasites on the hummingbird-flower system (Coerebidae) and are important as pollinators only in seasonally dry areas when the hummingbirds are poorly represented.

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