Fir Trees & Building the World of the Distant Past

Understanding when and where a group of species evolved tells a story of the world they emerged into.

This past week, I had an interesting new scientific paper come across my desk, on the systematics of fir trees – genus Abies in the Pine family. I realize fir tree systematics is not what the average person might consider compelling reading, but if you look past the statistical tests and lines of code, systematics can be great reading for the imagination. In this paper, the researchers reconstructed the speciation pulse (a period of time when a bunch of species came into existence fairly quickly) of fir trees native to the Mediterranean Basin, then dated it using fossils. The main finding of the paper was that this burst had actually happened millions of years earlier than had been supposed.

The really neat part is how they then used this finding to paint a picture of the world when fir trees were colonizing the Mediterranean. At the time these fir trees diversified, what we now think of as the Mediterranean climate, temperate and favourable to biodiversity, didn’t exist, and wouldn’t for tens of millions of years yet. At this time, the Oligocene-Miocene boundary, around 23 million years ago, the global climate had been cooling for some time, which favoured the expansion of gymnosperms like firs. A single ancestor came to the Mediterranean from Asia and quickly (for trees) spread through the whole of the Mediterranean Basin, leaving a dozen or so new species in its wake. This was going on at a time when the first apes were evolving and glasslands were just forming for the first time. The Andes didn’t exist yet and Australia was moving northward and drying out. What we now know about Mediterranean fir trees adds a new detail to this picture of a world very different from, but turning into, our own.

In my own work on the systematics of the Dialiinae, I’ve always been captivated by a genus called Labichea. It’s a group of about 14 shrubs native to Queensland, Australia. The earlier evolving species of the genus have pinnate leaves with broad leaflets, sort of like walnut trees (but smaller and more oval). From this, there is an evolutionary progression to species with fewer leaflets, becoming long and thin, covered with hairs to keep the wind from pulling water away form the surface. They become tougher and more leathery to the touch. In one species, the leaflets have narrowed and curled up on themselves so much that they are, for all intents and purposes, needles now. Lining these species up next to one another is like watching a plant evolve and adapt to an increasingly hot, dry Australian outback in real time.

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Labichea stellata, one of the intermediate forms, with tough, leathery, narrow leaves adapted to a hot, dry climate.

Studying the morphology – the physical form – of a plant will tell you a lot about the challenges of the place it evolved and what it had to survive to make it to today, but reconstructing the evolutionary tree of a group creates a sort of speculative saga of a group of species changing as the world changed and it pushed out to new territories and new niches. 

I think that’s the difference between finding science a collection of dry facts and finding it utterly compelling to learn about… knowing that you need to see the forest rather than just the trees, and to find the story of life that all those facts come together to tell you.

 

[Note to sharp readers: yes, I know those are not fir trees in the image. But those are definitely the mists of time you’re seeing between them.]

Storage & Survival in the Palm Family

Palm trees have had to develop some creative strategies to survive drought and cool climates.

My recent work with Botany One writing news briefs for newly published botany research has had me reading a lot of scientific articles, and it just so happens that twice in the last couple of weeks, they’ve dealt with new research on palms. Having worked mostly on legumes as a researcher, I’d never given much thought to these fascinating plants, beyond the fact that they look good on a tropical beach. But there’s a lot to them, as I’ve been finding out lately, and I thought I’d write a little post to share what I’ve learned.

Palms are members of the Arecaceae family, which has around 2600 species spread through the world’s tropical and subtropical regions. They are monocots, like grasses or orchids. The arborescent, or tree-like, members of the palm family – what we’d call a palm tree – are unique among tall trees in that they have no vascular cambium. This is the cell layer in the trunk of a tree that allows it to widen year upon year, and is also responsible for tree growth rings. If you cut a palm tree down, there are no annual rings in its trunk, because that trunk didn’t continue to grow. (It’s also why their trunks look so cylindrical, as opposed to the usual tapering you see in a tree trunk.) This imposes some interesting restrictions on the tree. For instance, the tree’s vasculature cannot be renewed, as it is in other trees. The cells making up the tubes that transport water and nutrients through the trunk must last the entire life of the tree, which can be upwards of 100 years in some species.

While more than 90% of palms are restricted to tropical rainforests, some also occur in cool, high altitude regions and arid deserts. Unlike most of the plants that live in cool and dry habitats, palms lack dormancy mechanisms, such as dropping their leaves, that would help them to survive these conditions. What’s more, like all monocots, palms have no central tap root that will allow them to reach deeper reserves of soil water. So they’ve had to develop some creative survival strategies. Under drought conditions, which some palm trees endure regularly due to their arid habitat, the greatest danger to a plant is vascular embolism. This happens when the water column that runs through the plant breaks because there’s not enough water, and air bubbles form and expand through the xylem tubes. Once a certain amount of air is present in the tube, it will never function again and the tissue it feeds will die. To help counter this, palm trees store water in parenchyma cells adjacent to the xylem, so that when an embolism is imminent, more water can be shifted into the column. Their anatomy also encourages embolisms that do happen to happen closer to the tip of the leaf, as opposed to near or inside the trunk, where they would do greater damage. 

Palms have a neat survival trick to help their seeds germinate in the low temperatures. Most palms store oil in their seeds to provide sustenance for the seedling when it germinates. This is usually high in saturated fats, which aren’t liquid at low temperatures. This would mean that seeds either couldn’t germinate under cool conditions, or would risk starvation if they did. New research has found that palms growing in cooler climates have evolved their own oil blend rich in unsaturated fats, which are liquid at lower temperatures, to help their seeds thrive in those habitats.

Speaking of oil storage, palms have been hugely important to human beings since before the dawn of civilization, all thanks to those oils, which can occur in both the seed and the fruit, and provide a high calorie food source. The best known is coconut, Cocos nucifera, with its greasy, delicious seed, which we eat as a fruit. In fact, the fruit of a coconut isn’t a nut at all, it’s a drupe. But while coconut is perhaps the most familiar palm food, the most economically important is certainly the oil palm, genus Elaeis. The oil that comes from this palm is high in saturated fat, making it useful for deep-frying (and bio-fuel), if not the best for your health. The use of palm oil is controversial, because of the environmental and human rights abuses linked to its production, yet production is ongoing in regions of Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Outside of their oil production, palms are also the source of dates, palm syrup, carnauba wax, and wood.

Recent research has found that the seeds with the greatest oil storage are all grouped in the tribe Cocoseae, but that palms with oily fruits and moderately oily seeds abound throughout the family, suggesting there may yet be nutritionally and economically valuable species that haven’t been discovered, though whether the further exploitation of these resources is a welcome development is debatable. 

Cuckoos: Outsourcing Childcare, Hogging the Bed

(Via:)
(Via: Batsby)

Common Name: Parasitic Cuckoos

A.K.A.: Subfamily Cuculinae (Family Cuculidae)

Vital Stats:

  • Range in length from 15-63cm (6-25”) and weigh between 17g (0.6oz.) and 630g (1.4lbs.)
  • The majority of cuckoos are not parasites, but around 60sp. are (about 56 in the Old World, and 3 in the New World)
  • Babies of brood parasites are initially coloured so as to resemble the young of the host species

Found: The cuckoo family is present throughout the temperate and tropical world, with the exceptions of southwest South America and regions of North Africa and the Middle East. Parasitic cuckoos occupy a subset of this range, principally in the Old World.

Cuckoo Map

It Does What?!

Parenting is tough… less sleep, less free time, all those all those hungry mouths to feed. What’s a busy mother to do? You know you need to perpetuate the species, but who has the time? Impressively, cuckoos have come up with the same answer that many humans have: outsourcing! Involuntary outsourcing, in this case.

One of these things is not like the others.(Via: Timothy H. Parker)
One of these things is not like the others.
(Via: Timothy H. Parker)

Once a female cuckoo has mated and is ready to lay the eggs, rather than build a nest and slog her way through childcare, she waits for another female with freshly laid eggs to take off for some food and just lays her egg there, spreading her clutch across several nests. In theory, when the duped female returns, she’ll just settle in and care for the new egg along with her own. Cuckoo eggs have a shorter incubation period than that of their host, so the foreign egg usually hatches first, at which point the baby cuckoo just gives the other eggs (or chicks, if the timing didn’t quite work out) a good shove, and enjoys having both a nest and a doting mother to itself. The cuckoo chick will tend to grow faster than its host species, so it keeps its adoptive parent busy with constant begging for food, having eliminated the competition.

But this wouldn’t be a fun evolutionary arms race if the host species just took it on the chin. Birds plagued by cuckoo eggs have worked out several ways to try to cope with the problem. First off, and not surprisingly, they’ve developed a burning hatred of cuckoos. Adult cuckoos seen in the area of the hosts’ nests will immediately be mobbed and run off by a group of angry mothers. The cuckoos, however, have learned to use this to their advantage by having the male of a pair tease and lure the angry mob away while the female lays her eggs in peace. Advantage: cuckoos.

And this, kids, is how you deal with those annoying younger siblings.(Via: M. Bán, PLoS ONE)
And this, kids, is how you deal with those annoying younger siblings.
(By: M. Bán, PLoS ONE)

A second strategy used by the parasitised birds is to learn to recognise foreign eggs and pre-emptively toss them out of the nest. Cuckoos responded to this in two ways. First, they slowly evolved eggs to match those of their host bird in colour and size (or, in the case of covered nests, very dark eggs which aren’t easily seen at all). Bird species with higher levels of egg rejection just end up with cuckoo eggs which look more and more similar to their own. Second, if a host does reject the foreign egg, the cuckoo who laid it will sometimes come and just destroy the entire nest, killing anything left inside it in an act of motherly vengeance. Advantage: cuckoos.

A third strategy, developed by the Superb Fairy Wren (not to be confused with the equally floridly named Splendid Fairy Wren) is a bit more clever. As soon as the host mother lays her eggs, she begins to sing to them in a very specific pattern. Now, in this case, the cuckoo egg will hatch around the same time as her own eggs, but was deposited there several days later than her own. This means that her own chicks have been sitting there, unborn, learning her song for a longer period of time than the cuckoo has. Once the eggs are hatched, only her own chicks will be able to properly replicate her calls. Can’t sing the song? No food for you. And if, prior to starving to death, the parasite chick does manage to push her chicks out of the nest, the mother will fail to hear the proper response at all and know to simply abandon the nest entirely. Advantage: Fairy Wren. Superb indeed.

Shrikes: don't try to outsmart a bird that kills mammals for sport.(Via: Arkive.org)
Shrikes… don’t try to outsmart a bird that kills mammals for sport.
(Via: Arkive.org)

There is at least one known case of a former host species throwing off the yoke of cuckoo parasitism entirely. The red-backed shrike, aside from being particularly murderously aggressive toward adult cuckoos (and many other things), became very good at identifying cuckoo eggs, very quickly. So quickly, in fact, that researchers believe the cuckoos simply didn’t have time to adapt. In laboratory experiments, the shrikes correctly identified and rejected 93.3% of all cuckoo eggs placed in their nests. Pretty good pattern recognition for a brain the size of a pea. While cuckoo-red shrike parasitism has been known historically for some time, it hasn’t been seen in nature for the last 30-40 years.

Shrikes for the win.

Fun Facts:

  • Even typically non-parasitic cuckoos will sometimes lay their eggs in the nests of their own or other species, but will still help to feed the chicks (parental guilt, perhaps?).
  • The eggshells of parasitic cuckoos are unusually thick, helping prevent them from cracking as their mother drops them from above into the host nest.
  • Striped cuckoos, not content to just shove their adoptive siblings out of the nest, actually peck them to death with their beaks.
  • A few birds deal with homicidal cuckoo chicks by building steep-sided nests, making it difficult for any chick to be pushed out (and raising them as one big, happy family, I guess).

Says Who?

  • Colombelli-Négrel et al. (2012) Current Biology 22: 2155-2160
  • Feeney et al. (2012) Animal Behaviour 84: 3-12
  • Lovaszi & Moskat (2004) Behaviour 141(2): 245-262
  • Spottiswoode & Stevens (2012) American Naturalist 179(5): 633-648
  • Wang & Kimball (2012) Journal of Ornithology 153: 825-831

The Old Girls’ Club

(Photo by the Author)
(Photo by the Author)

Common Name: African Elephants, Asian Elephants

A.K.A.: Loxodonta africana, Elephas maximus

Vital Stats:

  • Comprise the entirety of Family Elephantidae and Order Proboscidea
  • African elephants are thought by some to be two species; the African Forest Elephant, and the African Bush Elephant
  • Can live for up to 70 years in the wild
  • The largest living terrestrial animals, reaching heights of up to 4m (13’) and weights of up to 7000kg (15,000lbs.)
  • Consume up to 150kg (330lbs.) of food daily

Found: Savannahs, bushlands, and forests in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia (but sparsely across these regions)

Elephant Map

It Does What?!

Everyone knows elephants are cool. And weird looking. What they don’t tend to get a lot of credit for is just what complex lives they live, and how well-adapted they are to their surroundings. Far from being the dim, bovine, eating machines they’re often depicted as, elephants have been found to have an intelligence and self-awareness ranking up around that of primates and cetaceans, with comparably nuanced societies.

caption(Via:)
Jumbo renounces vegetarianism.
(Via: One Big Photo)

Elephant herds are matriarchal, being led by the oldest female and consisting of her close female relatives and their young offspring. Males are given the boot around the time they reach sexual maturity during their teens (because even the most intelligent animals find teenage boys a trial) and live the rest of their lives either alone or with a small pack of other exiled males.

Good parenting and discipline (delivered by mom with a swat of the trunk) seem to be extremely important for young male elephants; when orphaned males were introduced to a game reserve in South Africa in the late ‘90s, they immediately began going on killing sprees, hunting down and violently killing over 30 (endangered) rhinos, a completely abnormal behaviour for an elephant. As soon as well-adjusted adult males were introduced, the aggression stopped. Everybody needs a good role-model, I guess.

You may have heard stories about so-called “elephant graveyards,” where elephants go to die and leave remains near those of their relatives. While these have now been found to be a myth, appearing due to large die-offs happening suddenly in times of drought, it’s true that elephants show an inordinate amount of interest in the carcasses and bones of other elephants. Presented with a set of bones, elephants will become highly agitated and touch the bones repeatedly with their trunks, especially the dead animal’s tusks. Researchers speculate that this is because the tusks feel the same as they did in life, and touching is such an important aspect of elephant society. They are the only known animal outside of humans to take a particular interest in the bones of their species.

caption(Via:)
Probably not what evolution intended.
(Via: The Road to Anywhere)

And what about their most obviously bizarre feature? How did a prehensile nose develop?! It’s hard to say for sure, but one interesting theory comes from the fact that elephants use their trunks as snorkels while swimming, sometimes crossing shallow lakes by simply walking across the bottom with only their noses above water. Given that manatees are one of elephants’ closest relatives, some scientists have speculated that elephants evolved from aquatic mammals, slowly becoming terrestrial, but never losing their once-important snorkel. (Or their internal testicles, another trait associated with an aquatic lifestyle.) Other scientists think those guys don’t know what they’re talking about and lack evidence to support this theory. So it goes in science.

Whatever their origin, elephants’ trunks have become enormously important in their lives, and are used in everything from eating to fighting to bonding with family members. Actually a fusion of the nose and upper lip, trunks have over 100,000 muscles and are sensitive enough to crack open a peanut shell and retrieve the seed from it. The ability to grasp comes from one or two (in Asian and African elephants, respectively) finger-like extensions at the trunk’s tip. These “fingers,” combined with the elephants’ high degree of intelligence, have allowed them to learn the use of several tools, including tree-branch fly-swatters, which they probably invented millions of years before we came up with the idea. Different priorities…

caption(Via: Wikimedia Commons)
Yeah, we definitely need a few more of these.
(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

And finally, let’s not forget the dearly departed cousins. While African and Asian elephants are the only remaining species of Proboscidea, the order containing both mammoths and mastodons, there were once over 160 of them, inhabiting every continent except Australia and Antarctica. Most of these persisted until the most recent ice age killed off nearly all of the largest mammals. Some systematists believe that Asian elephants are in fact more closely related to woolly mammoths than they are to African elephants, and it’s even been speculated that a cloned mammoth could some day be gestated in the womb of an Asian elephant. ‘Cause if we learned anything from Jurassic Park, it’s that reanimating extinct megafauna is a great idea.

Fun Facts:

  • Elephants use ‘seismic communication,’ transmitting messages via a low-pitched rumble, which is detected by distant elephants using the pads of their feet.
  • While they can move surprisingly quickly, elephants don’t technically “run,” due to the fact that their legs never all leave the ground simultaneously.
  • It’s a common myth that elephants get drunk eating fermented marula fruits which have fallen to the ground. Given the low level of alcohol which accumulates in rotting fruit, an animal the size of an elephant would have to eat an unrealistically huge amount in a short time to reach a high enough blood alcohol level. But they do seem to enjoy them as a snack.

Says Who?

  • Choi (2011) “Woolly Mammoths Could Be Cloned Someday, Scientist Says”. Live Science.
  • McComb et al. (2006) Biology Letters 2: 26-28
  • Morris et al. (2006) Physiological and Biochemical Zoology 79(2): 363-369
  • Shoshani (1998) TREE 13(12): 480-487
  • Shoshani & Tassy (2005) Quaternary International 126-128: 5-20
  • Shoshani et al. (2006) Brain Research Bulletin 70: 124-157
  • West (2002) Physiology 17: 47-50

Living in Filth and Looking Up at the Stars

(Via:)
(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

Common Name: Dung Beetles

A.K.A.: Subfamily Scarabaeinae

Vital Stats:

  • Many subsist entirely on faeces, while others also consume fungi and decaying plant matter
  • Found in extremely diverse habitats, on all inhabited continents
  • Grow up to 6cm (2.4”) long, and can live for up to three years

Found: Across the temperate and tropical regions of the world

Dung Beetle Map

It Does What?!

Dung beetles… if you believe in reincarnation, these are why you try to stay on the straight and narrow. Otherwise, you might end up coming back as a creature whose life quite literally revolves around excrement. Dung beetles owe their entire existence to the fact that larger animals have inefficient digestive systems, consuming manure for its remaining nutrients and even laying their eggs inside it as food for their future young. Gross, yes, but once you get past the “ick” factor, it’s a pretty practical system.

Dung beetles come in three main varieties: rollers, tunnellers, and dwellers. Rollers, which are the type most people are familiar with, roll faeces into small balls which they roll away with them to consume and bury elsewhere. Tunnellers dig under the dung, burying it on site as an underground food source. Dwellers, the slackers of the dung beetle world, don’t bother with burying their treasure, preferring to simply live in it where it falls. I’ll focus on the rollers from here on in, as they’re the most bizarrely specialised of the bunch.

Dung beetles find their warm, fresh meals either through their excellent sense of smell or, in the case of some species, by simply riding around on their chosen food provider until the right time comes. Studies have shown that the beetles prefer omnivore or herbivore droppings to those of carnivores, perhaps for the more easily-digestible plant matter. One particularly intrepid group of researchers even determined that human faeces are favoured above those of most other large mammals. Good job, guys. Your funding agency must be proud.

It's a hot commodity... so to speak.(Via: Wikimedia Commons)
It’s a hot commodity… so to speak.
(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

Rollers immediately set to work on a new pile of droppings by shaping a dense little ball of up to ten times their weight (about TimBit sized, for you Canadians out there. Mmm!). Before rolling the ball away to be eaten/buried for later, the beetle will climb up on it and do a sort of dance, rotating around its top. Researchers also observed the beetles doing this dance if their rolling path was disturbed, or if another beetle stopped them to try to steal their ball.

So why the dance? As you might guess, it’s a means of getting their bearings, but what’s really fascinating is how they’re doing it. Dung beetles always roll their balls in a straight line directly away from its origin, probably as a means of reducing competition from other nearby beetles as quickly as possible. And they do this despite facing the ground as they roll the ball with their hind legs. During the day, this was fairly obviously accomplished by positioning themselves according to the direction of the sun, using their dorsal vision. However, they can also do it on a clear, moonless night. How?

Using a planetarium and a series of experiments which, hilariously, involved fitting the dung beetles with little cardboard hats to block their overhead vision, a South African researcher has determined that the beetles are actually using the light from the Milky Way to navigate. This is the only known instance of animals using an entire galaxy to orient themselves. Birds and seals have been known to use stars for positioning, but never the Milky Way itself. This from a tiny creature that cleans up piles of poop for a living… there’s probably an inspiring metaphor here somewhere.

Goes great with coffee!(Via: Wikimedia Commons)
Goes great with coffee!
(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

In the “But what does it do for me?” department, dung beetles are actually immensely useful to humans. Beyond restoring important soil nutrients, in areas of intense cattle-grazing, the beetles cart off and bury literally tonnes of manure that would otherwise host dangerous parasites and disease-carrying flies. Australia has intentionally introduced African dung beetles for this express purpose. Results have been much better than certain other introductions there.

The value of dung beetles has apparently been recognised for a very long time. Ever heard of the sacred scarab beetles of ancient Egypt? Yep… they’re dung beetles. One and the same. The beetles represented transformation and were linked with the god of the rising sun, who was believed to remake the sun and roll it across the sky each day, like the beetle with its ball. Something to think about next time you’re watching a beautiful sunrise.

[Fun Fact: Dung beetles in the African savanna use their dung balls as thermal refuges, periodically climbing up on them to moisten and cool their feet, which can increase in temperature by as much as ten degrees as they travel over the hot ground.]

Says Who?

  • Baird et al. (2012) PLoS ONE 7(1): e30211
  • Chamorro-Florescano (2011) Evolutionary Ecology 25: 277-289
  • Dacke et al. (2013) Current Biology 23: in press
  • Smolka et al. (2012) Current Biology 22(20): R863-R864
  • Whipple & Hoback (2012) Environmental Entomology 41(2): 238-244

Necessity is the Mother of Invention, or, How to Eat Like a Shrike

(By: Arthur Morris, Via: Livebooks Blog)

Common Name: The Shrike

A.K.A.: Family Laniidae

Vital Stats:

  • Family consists of three genera and around 30 species
  • Shrikes range in size from 17cm (6.5”) up to 50cm (20”) long
  • Feathers may be black and white, cream, grey, or brown

Found: Various species found in North America, Southern Africa, and Eurasia

It Does What?!

Sometimes a creature aspires to a spot a little higher on the food chain, but doesn’t quite have all the equipment to get there. Behold the shrike, the bird that wishes it were a raptor. Like birds of prey, shrikes have strong, hooked beaks, sharp eyes, and an appetite for meat, but they’re missing a couple of important features. First, and most important… no talons. Shrikes can’t grab a victim and tear it into pieces like a hawk or falcon could. And second, no crop (a sort of internal storage pouch), so they can’t eat a large quantity of meat in a single sitting.

Not to be deterred by their anatomical shortcomings, these inventive go-getters have come up with a single solution to both problems. Two birds with one stone, if you will. After dispatching their prey with a quick beak to the back of the neck, shrikes will carry the carcass to a nearby shrub and actually impale it on a short branch or thorn. Aside from looking incredibly badass, this serves to anchor the body in one place, allowing the shrike to use its beak to rip the meat into pieces. What’s more, the bird can just leave its leftovers hanging there for later, like the meat locker at a butcher shop. [Wondering what that looks like? Here’s a video, set to appropriately ominous music.]

And now they’re learning to use human technology…
(Via: Nature Saskatchewan)

What kind of prey are we talking about here? Anything from small insects right up to mice, frogs, lizards, and other birds. There’s even a record of one killing and impaling a good-sized bat. Impressively, shrikes have also hit on the value of ageing their food – one species hunts the toxic lubber grasshopper of the southern United States. The dead grasshoppers are then left hanging for several days to let the poison degrade before being eaten. Clever birds.

Shrikes are monogamous and share in parenting duties; when the female is sitting on eggs, it’s the male’s job to go out and kill something nutritious for two. Of course, this makes selecting a good hunter an important task for females during mate selection. When a single male wants to advertise his skills, he makes a conspicuous display of his biggest, most impressive kills for any prospective ladies. Once he’s gotten one’s attention, he performs a mating dance that mimics the action of impaling prey on branches and then feeds her from his assortment of carcasses. (Be sure to include this point next time you’re explaining ‘the birds and the bees’ to someone.)

The owner of this lizard is probably off getting lucky.
(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

I guess when you have only one major skill, you want to make the most of it, because aside from eating and attracting mates, shrikes also use their impaling trick for communication. Bonded pairs are territorial and will defend their terrain from others of their species. In a sort of macabre message to would-be trespassers, the couple will mount their kills around the borders of their land, perhaps in an effort to show others what could become of them if push came to shove. (Did I mention these things actually have a comic book monster named for them? Eat your heart out, Batman.) Unfortunately for them, researchers note that this action often resulted in the prey being snatched by opportunistic passers-by and having to be replaced. It’s so hard to look murderous when everybody keeps stealing your victims…

[Fun Fact: Shrikes with young chicks will often eat only the head of their prey, saving the bodies for the kids. ‘Cause that’s just good parenting.]

Says Who?

  • Keynan & Yosef (2010) Behavioural Processes 85: 47-51
  • Sarkozi & Brooks (2003) Southwestern Naturalist 48(2): 301-303
  • Smith (1973) Behaviour 44(1/2): 113-141
  • Yosef & Pinshow (2005) Behavioural Processes 69: 363-367
You’re next.
(Via: Tough Little Birds)

Pitcher Plants: Sweet Temptation and the Slippery Slope

(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

Common Name: The Asian Pitcher Plant

A.K.A.: Genus Nepenthes

Vital Stats:

  • Over 130 species in the genus
  • The vast majority of species have extremely narrow ranges of only a single island or small island group, and are considered threatened
  • Most recently discovered (2007) was Nepenthes attenboroughii, named for Sir David Attenborough, who is fond of pitcher plants

Found: Mountainous regions of Southeast Asia, Oceania, and Madagascar

It Does What?!

Plants have evolved a variety of different ways to deal with growing in nutrient-poor soils. Some become parasitic, some develop close symbiotic relationships with bacteria or fungi, and some of them… well, some of them just start eating animals.

Lizard: makes a nice, light snack.
(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

One group of plants that went this route are the Asian pitcher plants (not to be confused with the not-closely-related New World pitcher plants, which tend to have tall, flute-like pitchers). These smallish, climbing plants use highly modified leaves to form what are essentially external stomachs, complete with the plant’s own digestive fluid. These pitchers, which vary in size from one species to the next, have extremely slick, waxy inner walls. When visitors come to eat the nectar produced on the lid (or “operculum”) of the trap, they lose their footing and fall into the liquid below.

That liquid is actually a pretty complex mixture; it’s divided into two phases, like oil and water. The upper portion is mostly rainwater, but has been laced with a compound that makes it more viscous, preventing winged insects from just flying away, as they could from pure water. The trap’s lid actually functions to prevent too much rainwater from getting inside and diluting the fluid too much. The lower portion of the liquid is a digestive acid capable of breaking down flesh into useable molecules (particularly nitrogen and phosphorous), much like our own stomach acid. Analogous to our intestines, the lower inside surface of the pitcher is covered with special glands that absorb suspended nutrients.

Most of what gets caught in pitcher plants is about what you’d expect- winged insects, spiders, beetles, small scorpions. But occasionally, some larger animals find their way in. Things that should have known better, like frogs, lizards, and even birds. Arguably, these plants are doing evolution a favour by taking out any bird dumb enough to fly into its own watery grave. And yes, to answer your next question- they can eat rats, but only a single species has been documented to do this. Nepenthes rajah, the largest of all pitcher plants, has pitchers which grow to a height of nearly half a metre (1.6’) and hold up to three and a half litres (1gal.) of fluid, most of which is digestive juice.

Interestingly, pitcher plants have formed symbiotic relationships with several of the same types of creatures that it otherwise preys on. Nepenthes lowii, for example, provides nectar to a tree shrew. Instead of falling in and being digested, the shrew treats the pitcher as its personal toilet, thereby providing the plant with most of the nutrition it requires.

In one end and out the other.
(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

Other species form alliances with groups of carpenter ants. In exchange for a steady supply of nectar and a place to live- in this case a hollow tendril- the ants basically act as the plant’s evil henchmen (apparently a specialty of ants). When prey that is too large to be easily digested falls into the trap, the ants remove it, rip it to shreds, and then throw the bits back in again.

How’s that for a brilliant piece of evolution? Not only did these plants grow an external stomach… they get ants to chew their food for them.

[Fun Fact: Some pitcher plants primarily survive by digesting leaves that fall from trees into their traps – the ‘vegetarians’ of the carnivorous plant world.]

Says Who?

  • Bonhomme et al. (2011) Journal of Tropical Ecology 27: 15-24
  • Clarke et al. (2009) Biology Letters 5: 632-635
  • Krol et al. (2012) Annals of Botany 109: 47-64
  • Robinson et al. (2009) Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 159: 195-202
  • Wells et al. (2011) Journal of Tropical Ecology 27(4): 347-353
So big it makes them vaguely uncomfortable.
(Via: Wikimedia Commons)