Sexually deceptive orchids of the genus Ophrys attract their pollinators, male insects, on a highly specific basis through the emission of odour blends that mimic the female sex pheromone of the targeted species. In this study, we have investigated a contact site between Ophrys arachnitiformis and O. lupercalis, two sympatric orchid species that are usually reproductively isolated via the exploitation of different pollinator "niches", but occasionally hybridise despite their apparent combination of ethological and mechanical isolation barriers. In particular, we have investigated the extent to which these Ophrys hybrids generate "emergent" combinations (i.e. novel and unpredictable from the parents' phenotypes) of floral traits, and how these phenotypic novelties, particularly the odour blends emitted by the flower, could facilitate the invasion of a novel pollinator "niche" and induce the rapid formation of reproductive isolation, a prerequisite for adaptive evolutionary divergence.
Our chemical analyses of floral scents show that the Ophrys F1 hybrids investigated here produce more compounds, significantly different ratios (% of odour compounds in the total blend), as well as new compounds in their floral odour compared to their progenitors. When tested for their attractiveness to the pollinator of each parent orchid species, we found that floral scent extracts of the hybrids triggered less inspecting flights and contacts by the male bees with the scented dummy than those of the parental orchid species. However, a series of additional behavioural bioassays revealed that the novel floral scent of the hybrids was significantly more attractive than either of the two parents to a pollinator species not initially involved in the pollination of any of the parent Ophrys species.
Collectively, our results illustrate that the process of hybridisation can lead to the generation of evolutionary novelties, and that novel combinations of floral traits can drive pollinator shifts and rapid reproductive isolation in highly specific plant-pollinator interactions.