Floral scent is a complex sexual signal used by plants to attract pollinators. Like cricket songs or peacock tails, fragrance enhances reproductive success (through pollination) but also attracts predators. Unlike these animal signals, fragrance is poorly understood and difficult to measure. This project will explore several potential causes of fragrance variation among night blooming plants whose fragrance is essential for pollination. Floral scent variation within and among several populations of evening primrose (Oenothera caespitosa) plants will be surveyed using electronic nose technology, chemical analysis and multivariate statistics. Then, behavioral observations of pollinators and path analyses will be used to assess whether fragrance variation reflects (1) local pollinator adaptation (2) responses to herbivory, or (3) neutral genetic variation.
This project integrates the concepts and techniques of pollination biology with the emerging field of chemical communication, with clear applications to other ecological model systems and agricultural crops. The interdisciplinary laboratory and field studies described above will provide excellent opportunities for undergraduate research experience and educational outreach. Each summer, two students from the South Carolina Alliance for Minority Participation (SCAMP) will participate in chemical analysis and field research, with the option of presenting research findings at an international conference.