In some areas of sympatry, reproductively compatible plant species hybridize, but in other areas of sympatry, they do not and they remain reproductively isolated from one another. Explanations offered to explain patterns of hybridization that vary by population have usually focused on genetic or environmental factors. Instead, we examined whether different community contexts might change pollinator preference and constancy and thus influence the likelihood of hybridization among three Indian paintbrush species (Castilleja miniata, C. rhexifolia, and C. sulphurea). To determine whether visitation was context-dependent, we observed pollinator behavior in experimental arrays (constructed using flowering stems of the three Indian paintbrush species) in different contexts. Contexts were defined by which Castilleja species occurred in the immediate neighborhood of the arrays. Specifically, we asked, does visitation to particular species in the arrays depend on context? In general, each Castilleja species was preferred when it matched the surrounding community context, as is predicted by optimal foraging theory. More interestingly, pollinator constancy was weakened in the hybrid context (an area where the three species co-occurred with morphologically intermediate plants), which is likely to increase pollen flow among the species. Reduced pollinator constancy in hybrid zones could set up a positive feedback loop in which more flower diversity is created through hybridization, decreasing pollinator constancy, and leading to more hybridization. This self-reinforcing mechanism could lead to "hybridization hot spots" and to a patchy distribution of hybrid populations. We expect that this mechanism may be important in other animal-pollinated plant hybrid zones.
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