As Biotic Communities Form, Pollinators Swap One Plant for Another

A new study by Lauren Ponisio, assistant professor of entomology at UC Riverside, is helping create a clearer understanding of how networks of plants and pollinators form over time to create biotic communities. The research was published Sept. 18 in Ecology Letters.

Many of the foods we eat—almonds, blueberries, tomatoes, and more—depend on insect pollination for reproduction. Ponisio said human activities are degrading ecosystems at an alarming rate, which is threatening food production and security.

“If we understand how communities of pollinators and plants form, we might be able to reassemble communities of locally extinct species in the future,” Ponisio said.

A new study by Lauren Ponisio, assistant professor of entomology, is helping create a clearer understanding of how networks of plants and pollinators form over time to create biotic communities. Leithen M’Gonigle

In the study, Ponisio, along with Claire Kremen, a professor of environmental science, policy and management at UC Berkeley, and UCR postdoctoral fellow Marilia Gaiarsa, tracked the number of times that common Central Valley pollinators such as wild bees and hoverflies, visited areas of native plant growth. They hoped to better understand how these species assemble to make up the communities of plants, insects, and animals that form the biotic communities in and around food crops.

Once Ponisio analyzed the data, she discovered that pollinators’ visitation patterns differ from previously described models of plant-pollinator relationships. Ponisio and her co-authors found that pollinators’ preferences morph as plants communities grow, which is known as opportunistic attachment.

“This malleability could enable scientists to find ways to maintain and rebuild community functionality even when a plant species goes locally extinct,” Ponisio said.

Ponisio has published the computer code she used to create the study’s statistical models on the development platform GitHub.

This content was adapted from a story written by Mackenzie Smith in UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources.

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