Nathan Muchhala, PhD
Department of Biology
University of Missouri, St. Louis
Bats, birds, and bellflowers: The evolution of specialized pollination systems in the Neotropics
Animal pollination is thought to have played a central role in angiosperm diversification, especially in the tropics, where over 98% of plants are animal-pollinated. Research in my lab combines experiments and theory to explore the ecology and evolution of plant-pollinator interactions, with a focus on bat pollination in the Neotropics. In this talk I begin by discussing research on an unusual species of nectar bat which can launch its tongue 1.5 times its body length, an extension more than double that of other bats and longer than any other mammal. Unique adaptations allow it to store its tongue in its rib cage. Experiments suggest that this bat is involved in a coevolutionary race with the long-tubed bellflowers; tongue elongation allows bats to reach more nectar, while flower elongation maximizes pollen transfer. In the second part of the talk, I discuss research on shifts between bat and hummingbird pollination syndromes in the bellflower family. In the third part, I zoom in on the genus Burmeistera and explain ongoing research on pollinator-mediated speciation and gene flow in the group. Together, this research shows some of the ways that coevolution and competition have shaped the highly specialized pollination systems found in the tropics.