Disorder in convergent floral nanostructures enhances signalling to bees

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Abstract

Diverse forms of nanoscale architecture generate structural colour and perform signalling functions within and between species. Structural colour is the result of the interference of light from approximately regular periodic structures; some structural disorder is, however, inevitable in biological organisms. Is this disorder functional and subject to evolutionary selection, or is it simply an unavoidable outcome of biological developmental processes? Here we show that disordered nanostructures enable flowers to produce visual signals that are salient to bees. These disordered nanostructures (identified in most major lineages of angiosperms) have distinct anatomies but convergent optical properties; they all produce angle-dependent scattered light, predominantly at short wavelengths (ultraviolet and blue). We manufactured artificial flowers with nanoscale structures that possessed tailored levels of disorder in order to investigate how foraging bumblebees respond to this optical effect. We conclude that floral nanostructures have evolved, on multiple independent occasions, an effective degree of relative spatial disorder that generates a photonic signature that is highly salient to insect pollinators.

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