Proboscis curling in a pollinator causes extensive pollen movement and loss

Gordon P. Smith, Goggy Davidowitz, Robert A. Raguso, Judith L. Bronstein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


1. Precise pollen placement on floral visitors can improve pollen transfer, but in many plant species, pollen is deposited onto the flexible proboscises of long-tongued insects. These proboscises are curled and uncurled between floral visits, potentially causing pollen to be lost or displaced. Rates of pollen movement and loss resulting from proboscis curling, and hence the potential quality of long-tongued insects as pollinators, are unknown. 2. Here, pollen loss and movement on the proboscises of Manduca sexta (Sphingidae) hawkmoths was experimentally measured. It was predicted that (i) proboscis curling causes pollen loss; (ii) pollen that is not lost is displaced from its deposition site; and (iii) repeated curls result in more displacement. Pollen from Datura wrightii, an important nectar plant for M. sexta, was placed distal to the knee bend on M. sexta proboscises, and the number and location of grains was recorded after proboscis curls. 3. Consistent with the hypotheses, proboscis curling caused significant pollen loss. (i) A single curl resulted in the loss of almost 75% of the pollen from the placement site; after repeated curling, 98% of grains were lost from this site. (ii) A single curl was also sufficient to displace pollen across all surfaces of the proboscis, but (iii) further curling did not affect its distribution across surfaces. 4. Together, these results suggest that precise pollen placement on the proboscises of hawkmoths would be unlikely to increase pollen transfer success. Strategies by which flowering plants might mitigate the effects of pollen loss from visitors with flexible pollen-pickup structures are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)234-241
Number of pages8
JournalEcological Entomology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2022


  • hawkmoths
  • pollen fate
  • pollen loss
  • pollination
  • proboscis curling

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology
  • Insect Science


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