Erosion of a pollination mutualism along an environmental gradient in a south Andean treelet,Embothrium coccineum(Proteaceae)

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The limit of a species' distribution can be determined biotically if an environmental gradient causes the loss of critical mutualists such as pollinators. We assessed this hypothesis for Embothrium coccineum, a self-incompatible red-flowered treelet growing along a strong west-east precipitation gradient from rainforest to forest-steppe ecotone in the rain shadow of the southern Andes in northwestern Patagonia. For 16 populations along this gradient, we quantified composition of the pollinator assemblage, pollination efficiency and limitation, and reproductive output. The treelet has a generalized pollination system, but the hummingbird Sephanoides sephaniodes was the most effective pollinator. The relative importance of this hummingbird as a flower visitor within populations influenced pollen transfer and fruit set more strongly than local precipitation. As hummingbirds and other pollinators, including passerine birds and nemestrinid flies, were replaced by bees towards the dry eastern range limit, pollen limitation increased and reproduction eventually failed. These results support the hypothesis that pollinators can act as important biotic filters influencing plant distribution, and warn against predictions of geographical range shifts based solely on climatic variables.

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