By Kelly Koch
MONTEVERDE, Costa Rica — Tiny wings, a blur to the human eye, buzzed alarmingly close to visitors at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Hummingbirds targeted bright red flowers hanging from mossy branches.
When an animal visits a flower, it is seeking a sip of nectar. In exchange, the flower expects pollen to be effectively transferred to a neighboring bloom.
In the cloud forest, many plants rely on specific animals for pollination, such as bats, birds or insects, said tour guide Marcos Mendez of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.
Attracting a specific pollinator benefits flowers because it decreases their chances of receiving pollen intended for different plant species.
The relationship between a flower and its pollinator can be compared to a lock and key. A flower must be a precise shape to guarantee that the pollinator will have contact with the flower’s pollen and access to nectar.
The various iridescent hummingbirds that live in the Monteverde reserve have long, thin bills that slip perfectly into the narrow tube-like flowers that line the trails. Like a toddler at lunch, the bird will leave with remnants of its meal clinging to its chin. The traces of pollen will then be distributed to each of the flowers the bird zips to next.
Bees, the No. 1 pollinators of the cloud forest, can’t always pollinate the same flowers as hummingbirds, said Mendez. The fluted blooms favorited by hummingbirds dispense nectar deeper than the reach of the straw-like mouthpart of a bee.
Mendez explained that flowers’ appearances and scents are tailored to the preferences of the pollinating animal.
Fabio Aráya, a guide at the Monteverde Bat Jungle, said that a wide, cup-like purple flower called a cobar only provides nectar at night, a reward reserved for the long-faced humming bat.
The nocturnal bats lap nectar from the flower while accumulating pollen on their bellies. If the cobar provided nectar all day, bees could easily slip into the cup and eat without aiding in pollination, Fabio explained.
Bats, birds, bees, butterflies and beetles are all pollinating keys that fit unique flower locks. Their relationships highlight the complexity and delicacy of a cloud forest ecosystem.