The evolution of gender-biased nectar production in hermaphroditic plants

Jane E. Carlson, Louisiana State University
Kyle E. Harms, Louisiana State University


The evolution of secondary sexual floral traits may be driven by selection through male or female reproductive success. Even so, the gender-biased function of a floral trait is often unapparent because secondary sexual traits and primary sexual organs of both genders co-occur within most bisexual flowers. Within dichogamous plants, however, secondary sexual traits may be unambiguously expressed in association with the primary sexual organs of one gender, making these species uniquely suited to studies of natural and sexual selection on floral traits. The objectives of this article are to summarize patterns of gender-biased nectar production and to critically explore theories relevant to its evolution. We list 41 species with gender-biased nectar production and provide two sets of adaptive hypotheses for the trait: sexual selection hypotheses and inbreeding avoidance hypotheses. We formulate these hypotheses using sexual selection theory in plants and the literature that relates pollinator foraging to plant inbreeding. We also consider explanations based on resource trade-offs, enemies, and genetic correlations. Support for the sexual selection and inbreeding avoidance hypotheses is provided by only a few well-studied species. We outline a series of experiments that should facilitate sorting among hypotheses. Plants with gender-biased nectar production are likely to provide unique insights into the roles of natural and sexual selection in the evolution of floral traits. © 2006 The New York Botanical Garden.