“Generalist” plants and pollinators play a crucial role in maintaining biodiversity and may also serve as buffers against some impacts of climate change.
The findings,from University of Colorado Boulder researchers was published in Ecology, provide valuable insights for prioritizing the conservation of species that contribute to the strength of ecological communities.
“A lot of times, conservation efforts are geared toward things that are rare. But oftentimes, species that are common are also in decline and could go extinct, and that could have really big repercussions for maintaining biodiversity,” said Julian Resasco, lead author on the study and assistant professor of ecology.
A “generalist” simply refers to a species that interacts with a lot of other species. For example: A bee that visits many different species of flowers, or conversely, a flower that’s visited by many species of bees and other pollinators, said Resasco.
Bumblebees are well-known generalists, their fuzzy, cute bumbling bodies having garnered a large fan base of admirers over the years. But there are unsung heroes among generalist pollinators, including an insect that we often consider with disdain: flies. According to Resasco, some flies are the most common visitors to flowers, and they visit lots of different flowers.
Ecologists have long studied networks of interactions between plants and pollinators, and previous research has shown that generalists can be found time and time again within and across landscapes, and during warm seasons or over several years. What this new study finds is that within seasons, over the span of many years and across the landscape, generalists are able to persist and act as anchors for their communities.
Because so many species rely on generalists, having healthy populations of them helps support a robust community of plants and pollinators that are less susceptible to local extinctions. This robustness may also be important for buffering against increasing unequal shifts in the seasonal timing of species interaction due to climate change, known as phenological mismatch.
“If you just take some time to stop and observe what’s around you, it’s always interesting,” said Resasco. “Don’t overlook the common generalists.”