A Network Approach to Understanding Patterns of Coflowering in Diverse Communities

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Premise of research. The duration and intensity of flowering overlap among plants are the first determiners of the potential for pollinator-mediated plant-plant interactions. Yet, our ability to describe community-wide patterns of coflowering, and thus understand its impact on the structure of plant-pollinator communities, is limited. Methodology. We present a conceptual framework for how network theory can reveal structural properties that are ecologically relevant in diverse coflowering communities. Coflowering modules, in particular, may suggest that groups of species coflower more strongly (clustering) with each other than with other species (over-dispersion) in the community. Such a finding would indicate that competitive and facilitative interactions do not act alone but instead act simultaneously to mediate the assembly of coflowering communities. We illustrate our conceptual framework in four diverse coflowering communities in the serpentine seeps in northern California. Pivotal results. Our coflowering networks vary in size and degree but not in overall connectance, suggesting that both intrinsic community features (species richness) and ecological constraints (length of flowering season) play a role in mediating coflowering community structure (distribution of frequency and intensity of flowering overlap among plant species). We show, for the first time, that groups of species tend to coflower more strongly with each other than with other species in a community, supporting the idea that competition and facilitation are not mutually exclusive processes mediating coflowering community assembly. Our results show that the degree of modularity is not sensitive to the number of coflowering species within each community, suggesting that ecological factors may be more important in driving this pattern. Conclusions. Coflowering networks have the potential to advance our understanding of the causes and consequences of flowering overlap in diverse plant communities by revealing a more in-depth and novel characterization of coflowering community structure. Such characterization will allow for a better understanding of the importance of coflowering patterns in mediating the structure of plant-pollinator interactions.