Evolutionary ecology of Malpighiaceae pollination at the species and community levels
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Plant-pollinator interactions figure as key elements promoting the natural regeneration of terrestrial vegetation, as most plants depend on animals to transfer their gametes between flowers and produce seeds. Bees are the most common pollinators of plants and their interactions with flowers have served as model systems for the study of specialized mutualisms since Darwin's time. While most plants offer nectar as a reward and attract a variety of floral visitors, others produce distinctive types of resources which are sought by particular groups of pollinators. Such associations may involve specialization at the morphological, behavioral, or physiological levels and are especially common in tropical habitats. The interactions between oil-producing flowers of Neotropical Malpighiaceae and oil-collecting bees are an example of a specialized mutualism in which plants offer lipids to attract pollinators that use the resource to build nest cells and feed their offspring. Although several studies have focused on specialized pollination at the species level, their effects on the organization of tropical communities remain largely unexplored. This dissertation aims to help fill this gap through an analysis of the mechanisms of pollinator partitioning in multi-species assemblages of specialists as well as a study of the organization of communities in which they occur. The motivation for pursuing the study of specialized interactions using Neotropical species of Malpighiaceae as a model system is outlined in the first chapter. In Chapter 2, I present an evaluation of the structural properties of a plant-pollinator community from the Cerrado, a seasonal ecosystem that hosts a large diversity of oil flowers. The third chapter analyzes pollinator partitioning and reproductive strategies promoting the coexistence of closely related Malpighiaceae. A possible outcome for the selective pressures imposed by the coexistence of specialists is presented in Chapter 4 by a case study providing evidence for a shift from specialized to generalized pollination in a Neotropical Malpighiaceae species. The last chapter includes reports of active floral oil foraging by males of Tetrapedia and a description of an oil storage structure without precedence among bees and unique to males of this genus suggesting that floral oils may also play a role in bees mating systems.