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Bouquet bargains
Date:2/2/2012

Durham, NC Most creatures face compromises when they reproduce the more energy they devote to having lots of babies, the less they can invest in each one. But do the same tradeoffs hold true for plants? Biologists have long assumed that plants with bigger, showier flowers can make fewer of them per plant. But the data don't always hold up, scientists say. A new study by researchers at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center may help explain why.

"We expect size-number tradeoffs to be universal, but when we look at plants we don't always find them, and we wanted to know why that might be," said co-author Christina Caruso of the University of Guelph.

Because plants can't move, many rely on their showy, colorful blossoms to entice birds, bats and insects to deliver pollen from one flower to the next. Plants use a range of strategies to attract their suitors, from a single large flower per plant, to hundreds of tiny blooms.

But even if bigger, more plentiful blossoms are useful for attracting pollinators, no creature can do it all in the face of limited time, energy or resources. For most living things, the necessary tradeoff between quantity and quality means that those with numerous offspring can only invest so much energy in each one.

We see the same thing in people, said co-author Hafiz Maherali of the University of Guelph: "Human babies born as twins or triplets generally have lower birth weights than babies born singly," Maherali said.

From daffodils to dogwoods, models assume that flowering plants are no exception to the tradeoff rule. At least in theory, species with bigger blossoms should make fewer of them per plant. But in many plant studies the data don't always hold up.

"Perhaps tradeoffs aren't as pervasive as we think," Caruso said. "Or maybe plants experience the same [size-number] tradeoffs as other living things, but for various reasons they're harder to detect," she added.

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Contact: Robin Ann Smith
rsmith@nescent.org
919-668-4544
National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent)
Source:Eurekalert  

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