The extraordinary taxonomic and morphological diversity of orchids is accompanied by a remarkable range of pollinators and pollination systems. Sexually deceptive orchids are adapted to attract specific male insects that are fooled into attempting to mate with orchid flowers and inadvertently acting as pollinators. This review summarises current knowledge, explores new hypotheses in the literature, and introduces some new approaches to understanding sexual deception from the perspective of the duped pollinator. Four main topics are addressed: (1) global patterns in sexual deception, (2) pollinator identities, mating systems and behaviours, (3) pollinator perception of orchid deceptive signals, and (4) the evolutionary implications of pollinator responses to orchid deception, including potential costs imposed on pollinators by orchids. A global list of known and putative sexually deceptive orchids and their pollinators is provided
and methods for incorporating pollinator perspectives into sexual deception research are provided and reviewed.
At present, almost all known sexually deceptive orchid taxa are from Australia or Europe. A few sexually deceptive species and genera are reported for New Zealand and South Africa. In Central and Southern America, Asia, and the Pacific many more species are likely to be identified in the future. Despite the great diversity of sexually deceptive orchid genera in Australia, pollination rates reported in the literature are similar between Australian and European species. The typical pollinator of a sexually deceptive orchid is a male insect of a species that is polygynous, monandrous, haplodiploid, and solitary rather than social. Insect behaviours involved in the pollination of sexually deceptive orchids include pre-copulatory gripping of flowers, brief entrapment, mating, and very rarely, ejaculation. Pollinator behaviour varies within and among pollinator species.
Deception involving orchid mimicry of insect scent signals is becoming well understood for some species, but visual and tactile signals such as colour, shape, and texture remain neglected. Experimental manipulations that test for function, multi-signal interactions, and pollinator perception of these signals are required. Furthermore, other forms of deception such as exploitation of pollinator sensory biases or mating preferences merit more comprehensive investigation. Application of molecular techniques adapted from model plants and animals is likely to deliver new insights into orchid signalling, and pollinator perception and behaviour.
There is little current evidence that sexual deception drives any species-level selection on pollinators. Pollinators do learn to avoid deceptive orchids and their locations, but this is not necessarily a response specific to orchids. Even in systems where evidence suggests that orchids do interfere with pollinator mating opportunities, considerable further research is required to determine whether this is sufficient to impose selection on pollinators or generate antagonistic coevolution or an arms race between orchids and their pollinators.
Botanists, taxonomists and chemical ecologists have made remarkable progress in the study of deceptive orchid pollination. Further complementary investigations from entomology and behavioural ecology perspectives should prove fascinating and engender a more complete understanding of the evolution and maintenance of such enigmatic plant-animal interactions.