Variable responses of hawkmoths to nectar-depleted plants in two native Petunia axillaris (Solanaceae) populations
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Pollination success of deceptive orchids is affected by the density and distribution of nectar providing plant species and overall plant density. Here we extended the framework of how plant density can affect pollination to examine how it may promote the success of plant intraspecific cheaters. We compared hawkmoth behaviour in two native populations of Petunia axillaris, where we simultaneously offered rewarding and manually depleted P. axillaris. We asked whether pollinator foraging strategies change as a function of plant density and whether such changes may differentially affect nectarless plants. We observed the first choice and number of flowers visited by pollinators and found that in the dense population, pollinators visited more flowers on rewarding plants than on nectar-depleted plants. In the sparse population, such discrimination was absent. As we found no differences in nectar volume between plants of the two populations, the observed differences in plant density may be temporal. We reason that if differences were more permanent, an equivalent of the remote habitat hypothesis prevails: in a sparse population, cheating plants benefit from the absence of inter- and intraspecific competitors because pollinators tend to visit all potential resources. In a denser population, a pollinator’s optimal foraging strategy involves more selectivity. This would cause between-plant competition for pollinators in a pollinator-limited context, which applies to most hawkmoth-pollinated systems. We propose that nectar-provisioning of plants can be density-dependant, with cheaters able to persist in low density areas.