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Plant–pollinator interactions in a changing climate

Plant–pollinator interactions in a changing climate
Jessica Rachel Keenan Forrest


Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON M5S 3H6, CANADA.


Climate change is shifting the seasonal timing of many biological events, and the possibility of non-parallel shifts in different taxa has raised concerns about phenological decoupling of interacting species. My thesis investigates interactions between climate, phenology, and pollination, using the plants and pollinators of Rocky Mountain meadows as a study system. Interannual variation in timing of snowmelt since the 1970s has been associated with changes in the assemblages of concurrently flowering species in these meadows, suggesting that plant species differ in their phenological responses to climate. Differences between plants and pollinators in responsiveness to changing climate could, in principle, cause early-flowering plants to flower too early in warm years, before pollinators are active. In fact, I found only transient evidence for pollinator deficits in one early-flowering species (Mertensia fusiformis), even in an early-snowmelt year. However, the assemblage of pollinators visiting M. fusiformis does change predictably over the season, with likely consequences for selection on floral morphology in years when pollen is limiting. Hence, early- and late-flowering populations may evolve in response to phenology of the pollinator community. Differences between plant and pollinator phenologies appear to be due to generally lower temperature thresholds for development in plants, combined with microclimate differences between the soil and the above-ground nests of some pollinators. Phenological decoupling between plants and pollinators seems possible but unlikely to be catastrophic, since many taxa possess adaptations to temporally variable environments. Nevertheless, for many species, adaptation to novel climates will entail evolutionary change, and species interactions can influence evolutionary trajectories. For species affected by increasing late-summer drought, earlier flowering may be advantageous. However, in laboratory experiments, bumble bees avoid rare, unfamiliar flower types, causing simulated plant populations to fail to adapt to changing conditions. Overall, my work emphasizes the importance of the interplay between species interactions and environmental change.