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Colour mimicry and sexual deception by Tongue orchids (Cryptostylis)

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Typically, floral colour attracts pollinators by advertising rewards such as nectar, but how does colour function when pollinators are deceived, unrewarded, and may even suffer fitness costs? Sexually deceptive orchids are pollinated only by male insects fooled into mating with orchid flowers and inadvertently transferring orchid pollinia. Over long distances, sexually deceptive orchids lure pollinators with counterfeit insect sex pheromones, but close-range deception with colour mimicry is a tantalising possibility. Here, for the first time, we analyse the colours of four sexually deceptive Cryptostylis orchid species and the female wasp they mimic (Lissopimpla excelsa, Ichneumonidae), from the perspective of the orchids’ single, shared pollinator, male Lissopimpla excelsa. Despite appearing different to humans, the colours of the orchids and female wasps were effectively identical when mapped into a hymenopteran hexagonal colour space. The orchids and wasps reflected predominantly red-orange wavelengths, but UV was also reflected by raised bumps on two orchid species and by female wasp wings. The orchids’ bright yellow pollinia contrasted significantly with their overall red colour. Orchid deception may therefore involve accurate and species-specific mimicry of wavelengths reflected by female wasps, and potentially, exploitation of insects’ innate attraction to UV and yellow wavelengths. In general, mimicry may be facilitated by exploiting visual vulnerabilities and evolve more readily at the peripheries of sensory perception. Many sexually deceptive orchids are predominantly red, green or white: colours that are all potentially difficult for hymenoptera to detect or distinguish from the background.

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ACG was supported by a Furniss Foundation/American Orchid Society Fellowship and Munich Reinsurance. Specimens collected under permit. Field site suggestions/access: C Angus, A Brown, J Cooke, A Dilley, D & G Higgins, E Scanlen, I St George, J Siemons, A Stephenson, D & M Thomson, Jervis Bay Baptist Church Vincentia, the Town of Kwinana, Lane Cove Council, Realty Realizations Pty Ltd, and UTS. Field assistants: M Adams, B Dalrymple, K Dika, N Gaskett, G Holwell, M Innis, and R Koreshoff. Advice for spectral techniques: L Chittka, A Dyer, J Endler, A Göth, A Heiling, A Kelber, I-M Tso, E-C Yang, and E Warrant. We thank A Dyer, C Peter, and anonymous referees for manuscript comments.

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Correspondence to A. C. Gaskett.

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Gaskett, A.C., Herberstein, M.E. Colour mimicry and sexual deception by Tongue orchids (Cryptostylis). Naturwissenschaften 97, 97–102 (2010).

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