Pollen on Stigmas as Proxies of Pollinator Competition and Facilitation: Complexities, Caveats and Future Directions

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Background: Pollen transfer via animals is necessary for reproduction by ~80 % of flowering plants, and most of these plants live in multispecies communities where they can share pollinators. While diffuse plant-pollinator interactions are increasingly recognized as the rule rather than the exception, their fitness consequences cannot be deduced from flower visitation alone, so other proxies, functionally closer to seed production and amenable for use in a broad variety of diverse communities, are necessary. Scope: We conceptually summarize how the study of pollen on stigmas of spent flowers can reflect key drivers and functional aspects of the plant-pollinator interaction (e.g. competition, facilitation or commensalism). We critically evaluate how variable visitation rates and other factors (pollinator pool and floral avoidance) can give rise to different relationships between heterospecific pollen and (1) conspecific pollen on the stigma and (2) conspecific tubes/grain in the style, revealing the complexity of potential interpretations. We advise on best practices for using these proxies, noting the assumptions and caveats involved in their use, and explicate what additional data are required to verify interpretation of given patterns. Conclusions: We conclude that characterizing pollen on stigmas of spent flowers provides an attainable indirect measure of pollination interactions, but given the complex processes of pollen transfer that generate patterns of conspecific-heterospecific pollen on stigmas these cannot alone determine whether competition or facilitation are the underlying drivers. Thus, functional tests are also needed to validate these hypotheses.