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Study reveals that 90% of flowering plant species rely on animal pollinators

A new study published by China Science Press has revealed that 90 percent of flowering plant species rely on animal pollination. This research represents the most accurate estimate to date on the proportion of flowering plants that rely on animal pollinators.

The study was led by Professor Shuang-Quan Huang, Director of the Institute of Evolution and Ecology at the School of Life Sciences, Central China Normal University.

Critical questions

Professor Huang has been dedicated to pollination biology since his graduate studies from 1993. Along with his team, he made significant strides in addressing a critical question that has, until now, remained elusive – what percentage of flowering plants are pollinated by animals?

The importance of this question cannot be understated as it has implications for pollinator conservation and management in both natural and agricultural ecosystems. 

Early estimates of the proportion of animal-pollinated species were rough, varying from 2/3 to over 80 percent. 

Animal-pollinated species 

The latest and widely accepted answer, proposed in 2011, was 87.5 percent, which was based on average proportions of animal-pollinated species from around 40 communities, involving a sample of no more than one percent species of flowering plants. In other words, this method carried the potential for inaccuracies. 

Additionally, the team confronted another issue: the pollination modes of some taxa were misidentified or misunderstood, causing problems in the conservation of truly animal-pollinated plants, as well as in tallying pollination modes. 

An example of this is the Tetracentron sinense (Trochodendraceae), a tree endemic to central China, which was previously considered to be wind-pollinated but was found by Professor Huang’s team to be effectively pollinated by small bees.

Insightful estimates 

“Given that pollination modes in over ten thousand of flowering species have been recorded since Darwin’s era, it is time for us to give more accurate estimation of the proportion through data counting,” wrote the researchers. “This might be a challenge and bring a lot of controversy, but will be insightful.”

To investigate, the team conducted a global survey of thousands of publications and extracted data on abiotically pollinated cases as well as ambophilous ones (those that use both biotic and abiotic agents for pollination). 

These data were then evaluated in the context of two global mega-databases (GBIF, WFO) at species, genus, and family levels, enabling the researchers to obtain direct estimates of the proportion of biotic pollination across all angiosperms.

What the researchers learned 

The study revealed that 64-68 percent of families, 88 percent of genera, and 90 percent flowering plant species relied on animal pollination. 

“This global survey has definitely provided a new view and relatively an accurate estimate of the importance of pollinators in flowering-plant reproduction on our planet,” said Professor Huang.

Furthermore, when the researchers recalculated the most widely adopted previous estimate based on community sampling, after correcting for variation in sample sizes (a step not performed previously), the original estimate of 87.5 percent changed to 89.5 percent. 

Professor Scott Armbruster remarked, “The recalculation of the community dataset matches well with the direct-tally-and-subtraction approach; this is presumably not a coincidence.”

Study implications 

This new calculation of 90 percent of flowering plant species relying on animal pollination will pave the way for a better understanding of the critical role that pollinators play in the health of ecosystems on planet Earth, especially in light of ongoing pollinator declines globally. 

It is now crucial more than ever before that this knowledge is utilized to inform conservation efforts and safeguard the health of our planet’s ecosystems.

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