Ecological implications of a flower size/number trade-off in tropical forest trees

Chris J Kettle, Colin R Maycock, Jaboury Ghazoul, Pete M Hollingsworth, Eyen Khoo, Rahayu Sukmaria Haji Sukri, David F R P Burslem

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Background: In angiosperms, flower size commonly scales negatively with number. The ecological consequences of this trade-off for tropical trees remain poorly resolved, despite their potential importance for tropical forest conservation. We investigated the flower size number trade-off and its implications for fecundity in a sample of tree species from the Dipterocarpaceae on Borneo.

Methodology/Principal Findings: We combined experimental exclusion of pollinators in 11 species, with direct and indirect estimates of contemporary pollen dispersal in two study species and published estimates of pollen dispersal in a further three species to explore the relationship between flower size, pollinator size and mean pollen dispersal distance. Maximum flower production was two orders of magnitude greater in small-flowered than large-flowered species of Dipterocarpaceae. In contrast, fruit production was unrelated to flower size and did not differ significantly among species. Small-flowered species had both smaller-sized pollinators and lower mean pollination success than large-flowered species. Average pollen dispersal distances were lower and frequency of mating between related individuals was higher in a smaller-flowered species than a larger-flowered confamilial. Our synthesis of pollen dispersal estimates across five species of dipterocarp suggests that pollen dispersal scales positively with flower size.

Conclusions and Their Significance: Trade-offs embedded in the relationship between flower size and pollination success contribute to a reduction in the variance of fecundity among species. It is therefore plausible that these processes could delay competitive exclusion and contribute to maintenance of species coexistence in this ecologically and economically important family of tropical trees. These results have practical implications for tree species conservation and restoration. Seed collection from small-flowered species may be especially vulnerable to cryptic genetic erosion. Our findings also highlight the potential for differential vulnerability of tropical tree species to the deleterious consequences of forest fragmentation.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere16111
Number of pages11
JournalPloS ONE
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2011


  • spatial genetic-structure
  • neobalanocarpus-heimii dipterocarpacea
  • eichhornia-paniculata pontederiaceae
  • early-life stages
  • rain-forest
  • pollen dispersal
  • habitat fragmentation
  • floral display
  • seed set
  • platypodium-elegans


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