AI Unveils Ancient Origin Story of Floral Colors

The research, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society, simulated the landscape of the first flowering plants from many tens of millions of years ago, to test their visibility to pollinators like bees and birds.

Lead author and NativeBee+Tech Facility Director Associate Professor Alan Dorin, from the Faculty of Information Technology, said insects like bees developed visual perception well before the first flowers appeared so that they could fly and orient themselves among rocks, leaves, sticks and bark.

“Our results proved that the first flowers evolved more dazzling colours to distinguish themselves from their dull backgrounds so they could attract ancient pollinators,” Associate Professor Dorin said.

To test whether bees evolved and viewed their current environment in the same manner as their ancestors viewed theirs, the researchers tested bees’ colour perception against simulated prehistoric environments.

“Given that Australia is a geologically ancient continent, we used colour spectrum measurements from the Australian bushland, from Cairns right down to the southern tip of Victoria, to simulate landscapes from when the first flowers evolved during the Mesozoic era, between 252 million and 66 million years ago,” Associate Professor Dorin explained.

Vision scientist and research co-author Associate Professor Adrian Dyer, from the Department of Physiology at Monash’s Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences, said this is the first time a strong link showing how the visual perception of  ancient pollinators and the bees of today has guided flower colour evolution.

“We can now see that, like their ancestors, bees have ultraviolet (UV), blue and green photoreceptors, which explains why some modern flowers have frequently evolved common colours like yellow in their petals as a response to what can be easily perceived by bees,” Associate Professor Dyer said.

The findings of this research will help inform how plant species are pollinated in contemporary times, and advance the study of smart agriculture or unlock potential for further research in the field of efficient crop pollination.

This research was led by experts from Monash University in collaboration with academics from the University of Melbourne, University of Bayreuth (Germany) and Indiana University (USA).

The research was supported by the Australian Research Council’s Discovery Projects funding scheme, and partially funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education (BMBF).

Lead researcher from the Faculty of Information Technology, Associate Professor Alan Dorin, and Associate Professor Adrian Dyer from the Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences are available for interviews.