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Co-Evolution at the Plant-Animal Interface (project completed 2010)

Understanding the role that animals have played in driving plant speciation.

The diversification of plants is often intimately linked to their interactions with animals. This project studied several models of plant-animal interactions, especially plant-pollinator relationships but not exclusively (e.g. grass-herbivores co-evolution, bird dispersal and global patterns of plant distribution, etc.). In the case of pollination, the aim was to build a comprehensive phylogenetic hypotheses for both partners and use comparative analyses to help characterise the role that animals have played in driving plant speciation, e.g. in biodiversity hotspots. In some extreme cases of co-evolution, i.e. figs and their pollinating wasps, the project built one of the most comprehensive phylogenetic trees for figs and showed that they have co-radiated with wasps in the last 60 millions years. In Lamiales and Iridaceae, several genera that might have extensively shifted pollinators (e.g. within Lamiaceae and Gesneriaceae, Moraea, etc.) were also the focus of phylogenetic analyses to better understand these 'adaptive radiations'. In other examples, models of insect vision were used to study how orchids mimic sympatric plants in neotropical communities and how specific mimicry can affect speciation. As part of a CASE BBSRC studentship, a global database of floral reflectance measures (FreD) was compiled and made available via the web; these data will also help better understand plant-pollinator relationships via visual clues.

The project benefited from a grant from the European Commission (fig-wasp coevolution; 2005-2007) and a CASE BBSRC studentship. Other grants (e.g. Enterprise Ireland; grass-herbivores co-evolution) and core-funding were also used for some components of the project. Main project outputs were high-profile publications that help synthesise the various aspects of plant-animal interactions.

Project completed: 2010

Key publications 2006-2010

  • Waterman R.J,. Bidartondo, M.I. Stofberg, J., Combs, J.K., Gebauer, G., Savolainen, V., Barraclough, T.G. & Pauw, A. (2010). The effects of above- and below ground mutualisms on orchid speciation and coexistence. American Naturalist 177: E54-E58.
  • Arnold, S.E.J., Faruq, S., Savolainen, V., McOwan, P.W. & Chittka, L. (2010). FReD: the Floral Reflectance Database - a web portal for analyses of flower colour. PLOS ONE 5: e14287.
  • Rymer P.D., Johnson, S.D. & Savolainen, V. (2010). Pollinator behaviour and plant speciation: can assortative mating and disruptive selection maintain distinct floral morphs in sympatry? New Phytologist 188: 426-436.
  • Thomas, M.M.,  Rudall, P.J., Ellis, A.G., Savolainen, V. & Glover, B.J.(2009). Development of a complex floral trait: the pollinator-attrcting petal spots of the beetle daisy, Gorteria diffusa (Asteraceae). American Journal of Botany 96: 2184-2196.
  • Waterman, R.J., Pauw, A., Barraclough, T.G. & Savolainen, V. (2009). Pollinators underestimated: A molecular phylogeny reveals widespread floral convergence in oil-secreting orchids (sub-tribe Coryciinae) of the Cape of South Africa. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 51: 100-110.
  • Arnold, S.E.J., Savolainen, V. & Chittka, L. (2009). Flower colours along an alpine altitude gradient, seen through the eyes of fly and bee pollinators. Arthropod-Plant Interactions 3: 27-43.
  • Ronsted, N., Weiblen, G.D., Savolainen, V. & Cook, J.M. (2008). Phylogeny, biogeography, and ecology of Ficus section Malvanthera (Moraceae). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 48: 12-22.
  • Ronsted, N., Weiblen, G.D., Clement, W.L., Zerega, N.J.C. & Savolainen, V. (2008). Reconstructing the phylogeny of figs (Ficus, Moraceae) to reveal the history of the fig pollination mutualism. Symbiosis 45: 45-44.
  • Ronsted, N., Salvo, G.,& Savolainen, V. (2007). Biogeographical and phylogenetic origins of African fig species (Ficus section Galoglychia). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 43: 190-201.

Project partners and collaborators

Costa Rica
Lankester Botanical Garden, University of Costa Rica
Royal Botanic Garden Madrid
South Africa
South African National Botanical Institute
University of Johannesburg
Geneva Botanical Garden
Queen Mary and Westfield College
Missouri Botanical Garden
University of Minnesota

Project funders

The European Commission

Project team

Herbarium, Library, Art & Archives

Martin Cheek, Alan Paton, Dave Simpson

Jodrell Laboratory
Mark Chase, Martyn Powell, Nina Ronsted, Vincent Savolainen
Science Teams: 
Project Leader: