, Volume 151, Issue 3, pp 442-453
Date: 02 Nov 2006

Asymmetric specialization and extinction risk in plant–flower visitor webs: a matter of morphology or abundance?

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A recently discovered feature of plant–flower visitor webs is the asymmetric specialization of the interaction partners: specialized plants interact mainly with generalized flower visitors and specialized flower visitors mainly with generalized plants. Little is known about the factors leading to this asymmetry and their consequences for the extinction risk of species. Previous studies have proposed random interactions proportional to species abundance as an explanation. However, the simulation models used in these studies did not include potential biological constraints. In the present study, we tested the potential role of both morphological constraints and species abundance in promoting asymmetric specialization. We compared actual field data of a Mediterranean plant–flower visitor web with predictions of Monte Carlo simulations including different combinations of the potential factors structuring the web. Our simulations showed that both nectar-holder depth and abundance were able to produce asymmetry; but that the expected degree of asymmetry was stronger if based on both. Both factors can predict the number of interaction partners, but only nectar-holder depth was able to predict the degree of asymmetry of a certain species. What is more, without the size threshold the influence of abundance would disappear over time. Thus, asymmetric specialization seems to be the result of a size threshold and, only among the allowed interactions above this size threshold, a result of random interactions proportional to abundance. The simulations also showed that asymmetric specialization could not be the reason that the extinction risk of specialists and generalists is equalized, as suggested in the literature. In asymmetric webs specialists clearly had higher short-term extinction risks. In fact, primarily generalist visitors seem to profit from asymmetric specialization. In our web, specialists were less abundant than generalists. Therefore, including abundance in the simulation models increased the difference between specialists and generalists even more.