Killing Me Softly, or, The Fatal Embrace of the Strangler Fig

(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

Common Name: Strangler Figs

A.K.A.: Ficus species

Vital Stats:

  • There are around 800 sp. of figs, over half of which are hemi-epiphytes, like stranglers
  • Around 10% of all vascular plants are epiphytes (about 25,000 species)
  • The trees which produce the figs we eat are terrestrial, and do not grow in other trees

Found: Tropical forests of Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Australia

It Does What?!

What does it take to squeeze the life out of a full-grown tree? A lot of time and some very long roots, apparently. Many parasites eventually bring about the untimely death of their hosts, but few do it as slowly and as insidiously as the strangler fig.

Stranglers begin life as a tiny seed that leaves the back end of a bird and happens to land on a tree branch high in the rainforest canopy. The seed germinates, and the young fig begins to grow as an aerial plant, or epiphyte, taking its moisture from the air and its nutrients from the leaf litter on its branch. Thousands of plant species, including most orchids, grow in this manner. But then an odd thing begins to happen. The seedling produces a single long root. Very long. From tens of metres up in the canopy, this root grows all the way down to the ground. Many young stranglers will die before their questing root reaches the earth, but for those that make it, a connection is formed with the soil through which water and nutrients can be extracted. From this point on the great, towering giant which holds this tiny little interloper is in mortal danger.

The strangler fig, playing “harmless epiphyte.”
(Screenshot from The Private Life of Plants, BBC)

A secure connection to the soil allows the fig to speed up its growth and to begin sending more and more roots earthward. Rather than dropping straight down, like the initial root, these later organs will twine around the bark of the host tree. At first, the roots are tiny, like mere vines crawling over the host trunk. Over time, however, they thicken, covering more and more of the trunk’s surface. Where they touch or overlap, the roots actually fuse together, forming a mesh over the surface of the bark. Up above, the stem of the strangler is growing as well. It rises through and above the host branches, soaking up the light and leaving the other tree shaded and starved for energy.

In fact, this is a war fought on two fronts. As the starving host tree struggles to gather light energy to send downward from the leaves, it is also increasingly unable to bring water up from its roots. This is because the tree’s trunk continues to expand even as the strangler’s grip grows tighter around it. These opposing forces effectively girdle the tree, crushing the vascular tissues that carry moisture from the soil. Eventually, the battle is lost and the tree dies. Fortunately for the fig, its major investments in root growth have paid off – the dead host tree does not fall, taking the strangler with it. Instead, it simply rots where it stands. Finally, many years after its arrival on the scene, the strangler fig has achieved independence. It is now a free-standing tree, completely hollow and supported by its interwoven lattice of aerial roots.

The first root finds the ground.
(Screenshot from The Private Life of Plants, BBC)

So what happens when more than one strangler fig seed lands on a particular tree? Something quite unique… the roots of the different individuals fuse and form an organism which is indistinguishable from a single tree, except by molecular testing. These are what biologists refer to as ‘genetic mosaics.’ What’s more, the individuals actually begin to act like a single tree. You see, figs typically have staggered flowering times, such that it is unlikely for numerous trees in a small area to be in bloom at the same time. This helps in keeping their wasp symbionts well nourished. Once trees fuse, however, they seem to become physiologically linked as well, with researchers reporting that they bloom as a single individual.

The most hurricane-proof tree ever.
(Screenshot from The Private Life of Plants, BBC)

[Fun Fact: Some strangler fig species have very high growth rates, and huge individuals have actually been found engulfing abandoned buildings in the tropics.]

Says Who?

  • Harrison (2006) Journal of Tropical Ecology 22(4): 477-480
  • Perry & Merschel (1987) Smithsonian 17: 72-79
  • Schmidt & Tracey (2006) Functional Plant Biology 33: 465-475
  • Thomson et al. (1991) Science 254: 1214-1216
Don’t meditate under strangler figs.
(Via: Flickr, by vincenzooli)

The Zombie Apocalypse: Already Underway

(Via: this site)

Common Name: The Zombie-Ant Fungus

A.K.A.: Ophiocordyceps unilateralis

Vital Stats:

  • Whole “graveyards” of 20-30 ants may be found within a single square metre
  • Telltale bitemarks on fossil plants suggest this fungus, or a related species, may have been in operation for the last 48 million years
  • Host species is the carpenter ant Camponotus leonardi

Found: Tropical forests throughout the world

It Does What?!

Despite all the advances of modern neuroscience, the fact is, human understanding of brain chemistry and its manipulation still has a long way to go. Much to the chagrin of those plotting world domination, we won’t be chemically controlling each other’s minds any time soon. How embarrassing then, that a mere fungus seems to have perfected this technique. Almost fifty million years ago. Scooped again, humanity.

It begins with an ant walking along the ground, deep in a tropical forest somewhere. This ant, Camponotus leonardi, lives high in the trees, but must occasionally come down to cross from one tree to another when there is a break in the canopy. As it walks, a minute fungal spore drifts down from above and lands in its back, unnoticed. The unseen spore springs into action, producing an enzyme which breaks down the ant’s exoskeleton just enough to allow a fungal hypha, like a tiny root, to enter. The host’s fate is now sealed.

This is your brain on ‘shrooms.
(Via: Flickr, by Alextkt)

While the ant climbs back up into the canopy and goes about its business, the fungus grows through its insides, breaking down and consuming the non-vital soft tissues as it goes, keeping the animal alive even as it is being eaten. Soon, the fungal tendrils reach the brain and begin to produce chemicals which affect the host’s behaviour in very specific ways. First, it will experience convulsions that cause it to fall out of its tree. These will continue periodically, preventing it from returning to its colony. Over a period of hours, the ant will then wander, erratically and aimlessly, over the ground and low-growing plants.

This is where the precision of the fungus’ mind control becomes truly impressive. At solar noon, when the sun is highest in the sky, the infected ant will abruptly climb the stem of a small plant and find a leaf pointing north by northwest at a height of 20-30cm above the ground. Yes, really. No one knows how this jaw-dropping specificity is accomplished, but it’s what the fungus wants, providing a temperature of 20-30 degrees Celcius (68-86F) and a relative humidity of around 95%. In cases where ants were experimentally moved to different heights or orientations, the fungus was unable to reproduce properly.

What the fungus wants, the fungus gets.
(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

Having found the perfect leaf, the zombified ant will go to its underside, find a major leaf vein, and just bite down on it as hard as it can. The fungus has already destroyed the muscles required to release this grip, and so there the ant stays, slowly dying over the course of the afternoon. Once its victim has been dispatched, the fungus grows toward the leaf, further anchoring itself to the plant. Around a week later, the parasite completes its horrifying circle of life by growing a fruiting body, similar to a mushroom, from the back of the dead ant’s head. This will open to release thousands of tiny spores, raining down over any potential hosts which may be walking below.

While the fungus is able to infect other, closely related, species of carpenter ant, it has less precise control over these hosts and isn’t always successful in getting the ant to do its bidding, suggesting that even minor variations in brain structure can stump it. So we’re probably safe from the fungal zombie apocalypse. At least for the time being…

Says Who?

  • Andersen et al. (2009) American Naturalist 174(3): 424-433
  • Hughes et al. (2011) Biology Letters 7: 67-70
  • Hughes et al. (2011) BMC Ecology 11: 13
  • Pontoppidan et al. (2009) PloS ONE 4(3): e4835

Death from Below! (The Purse-Web Spider)

(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

Common Name: Purse-Web Spiders

A.K.A.: Family Atypidae

Vital Stats:

  • The family contains three genera; Atypus, Calommata, and Sphodros
  • Females reach up to 30mm (1.2”) in length
  • Fangs can measure up to half the spider’s body length
  • Prey includes crickets, beetles, millipedes, ants, wasps, and other spiders
  • Web tubes measure up to half a metre (20”) from top to bottom

Found: Africa, temperate regions of North America, Europe, and Asia

It Does What?!

Imagine you’re a beetle, peacefully strolling along the forest floor, minding your own business, when suddenly, two enormous black spikes drive up out of the earth and impale you through the abdomen. As everything fades to black, your last beetle-ly thought is, “What the hell was that?!

You have just become a tasty lunch for the purse-web spider.

So how does this work? Well, unlike most of the spiders we’re familiar with – those with small, pincer-like mouths that sit in webs all day – purse-webs are a type of primitive spider called a mygalomorph. In this group, the fangs are like a pair of large (relative to the spider) tusks that only move up and down; they don’t pinch, and this feature lends itself to some rather creative hunting methods.

Rather than constructing a flat, aerial web designed to have something fall into it, the purse-web spider spins what is essentially a silken tube-sock. The ‘foot’ of this sock lies along a slight depression in the ground, while the upper part lies vertically against a tree or rock (or, in some species, angles downward into the earth). The spider will then place bits of bark and lichen onto both parts of the web as camouflage. Over time, moss will actually begin to grow on the web, completing the disguise. All the spider needs to do now is wait, suspended from the ceiling of her underground lair, for some unwitting creature to walk over it. When this happens, she rushes to the source of the disturbance and spears her prey from below with her fangs before they realise what hit them (like this).

Invisible by spider standards, anyway.
(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

The spider will be vulnerable to larger predators if she ventures out into the open, so she simply cuts a slit in the web, drags her impaled prey inside, and seals up the hole again. Having sucked out their delicious insides, she then drops the dead husks out of the top of her sock like so much household garbage. In fact, researchers determined the diet of the purse-web spider by noting the various exoskeletons hanging from the outside of the web, having gotten caught on their way down. Apparently, all the dead bodies seemingly stuck to the side of a nearby tree aren’t much of a deterrent to other passersby.

So, since these spiders never leave their burrows, and kill anything that approaches, mating must be tricky, right? Right. The male is attracted to the female’s web by means of pheromones, and ventures out to find it. Once he locates the web, he must be very careful, tapping at the outside of the tube in a way that indicates he isn’t prey. Ultimately, though, whether he’s prey or not will be up to her. If the female inside isn’t yet mature or is already pregnant, she won’t hesitate to eat him when he attempts to enter the burrow. Researchers experimenting with placing male spiders in or near the webs of unreceptive females noted, essentially, that they run like hell as soon as they figure out what’s what. Research is amusing sometimes.

A male purse-web spider on what will be either the best or worst day of his life.
(Via: Florida Backyard Spiders)

But in the happy instances where the female is willing to mate, the male enters safely, and in fact continues to live with her for several months of domestic bliss before he dies naturally. And then she eats him anyway. Spiders are not sentimental creatures. Her eggs will take almost a year to hatch, and the young will stay with her for nearly another year after that, before striking out in the world to spin their own tube-sock of death.

Says Who?

  • Beatty (1986) Journal of Arachnology 14(1): 130-132
  • Coyle & Shear (1981) Journal of Arachnology 9: 317-326
  • Piper (2007) Extraordinary Animals: an encyclopedia of curious and unusual animals. Greenwood Press, Westport CT.
  • Schwendinger (1990) Zoologica Scripta 19(3): 353-366

The Bloodhounds of the Plant World (Cuscuta sp.)

(Via: Marine Science)

Common Names: Dodder, Goldthread, Witch’s Shoelaces

A.K.A.: Genus Cuscuta

Vital Stats:

  • Approximately 200 species
  • Part of the Convolvulaceae family, which includes morning glory and sweet potato
  • Only 15-20 species are considered to be problematic crop parasites

Found: Throughout temperate and tropical parts of the world

It Does What?!

We’ve discussed a few parasites on this blog already, and they’ve all been pretty typical of what comes to mind when we think of parasitic organisms- tiny, malignant little creatures that invade the host’s body, steal its resources, and, in some cases, eat its tongue. But when we think ‘parasite,’ we don’t usually think ‘plant.’ As it turns out, there are an estimated 4500 parasitic species just among the angiosperms, or flowering plants. Among them, dodders have to be one of the strangest.

Found nearly throughout the world, these vine-like plants begin as tiny seeds that germinate late in the spring or summer, after their potential host plants have established themselves. The young seedling has no functional roots and little or no ability to photosynthesize, so initially, it must make do with what little nutrition was stored in its seed. This isn’t much, so the plant has only a few days to a week to reach a host before it dies. To better its chances, the dodder stem swings around in a helicopter-like fashion as it grows, trying to hit something useful.

Much more impressive is the plant’s other method of finding suitable hosts- a sense of smell. Recent research has found that, uniquely among plants, the dodder can actually detect odours given off by surrounding plants and grow towards them. In experiments, the seedlings were found to grow toward the scent of a tomato, even if no actual plant was present. What’s more, they are capable of showing a preference among hosts. Presented with both tomato plants, which make excellent hosts, and wheat plants, which make poor hosts, seedlings were found to grow toward the aroma of tomatoes much more often. Like herbivores, they can use scent to forage amongst a variety of species for their preferred prey.

Smells like lunch… even to other plants.
(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

Once a host plant is found, the dodder begins to twine itself around the stem and to form haustoria (singular: haustorium). These are like tiny tap roots that pierce the host’s stem and actually push between the living cells inside until they reach the vascular system. Once there, the haustoria enter both the xylem (where water and minerals move upward from the roots) and the phloem (where sugars from photosynthesis move around the plant). From these two sources, the dodder receives all its nutrients and water, freeing it from any need for a root system, or even a connection to the soil. And since it doesn’t need to capture solar energy, all green pigment fades from the parasite, and it turns a distinctive yellow or red colour. Leaves aren’t necessary either, which is why the plant is essentially nothing but stem, explaining its common name of “witch’s shoelaces.”

Not what you want to see when you head out to weed the garden.
(Via: County of Los Angeles)

Once it gets comfortable on its new host, the dodder can grow at a rate of several centimetres a day (impressive for a plant) and produce stems of a kilometre or more in length, quickly overrunning an area. It can also attach itself to additional hosts – hundreds, in fact – which is problematic, because at this point it becomes the plant equivalent of a dirty shared needle. Since the vasculature of the hosts is connected, any virus present in one host can be freely transferred to any other. This ability, coupled with its affinity for potatoes, tomatoes, tobacco, and several other important crops, makes dodder a major nuisance for many farmers. And since it’s able to regenerate from just a single, tiny haustorium left in a host plant, it’s really hard to get rid of. There’s always a flip side, though; in some ecosystems, dodder can actually maintain biodiversity by preferentially parasitising the more competitive plants, allowing the weaker ones to survive. It seems dodder may also be the Robin Hood of the plant world.

[Extra Credit: Here’s a video showing how dodder can completely take over a group of nettle plants, complete with ominous soundtrack. Narrated by the fantastic Sir David Attenborough.]

Says Who?

  • Costea (2007-2012) Digital Atlas of Cuscuta (Convolvulaceae). Wilfred Laurier University Herbarium, Ontario, Canada
  • Furuhashi et al. (2011) Journal of Plant Interactions 6(4): 207-219
  • Hosford (1967) Botanical Review 33(4): 387-406
  • Pennisi (2006) Science 313: 1867
  • Runyon et al. (2006) Science 313:1964-1967

    Cuscuta: 1, Acacia: 0
    (Via: Wikimedia Commons)

EVOLUTION TAG TEAM, Part 2: Sex & the Synconium

The second in an ongoing series of biology’s greatest duos. (Check out Parts One and Three)

(Via: Mastering Horticulture)

Common Name (Plants): Fig Trees

  • A.K.A.: Genus Ficus

Common Name (Wasps): Fig Wasps

  • A.K.A.: Family Agaonidae

Vital Stats:

  • Approximately 800 species of figs
  • Most are trees, but some are shrubs and vines
  • Approximately 640 species (20 genera) of fig wasps
  • All are obligate pollinators of figs

Found: Throughout the Tropics

It Does What?!

Snacked on any Fig Newtons lately? Tasty, right? Like the ad says, “A cookie is just a cookie, but a Newton is fruit and cake.”  …And wasps.

They must have run out of space on the package for that last part.

Before you toss out your favourite teatime treat, I should point out that without those wasps, the figs themselves wouldn’t exist. [Personally, I love Fig Newtons and will eat them regardless of any insects present.] This plant-insect pairing actually represents one of the most stable symbioses out there, with evidence suggesting it has existed for over 65 million years.

Now with 10% more Wings
(Via: Wikipedia)

While it’s not entirely clear how this arrangement evolved in the first place, fig trees produce a unique structure called a synconium, in which the flowers are actually inside the part we think of as the fruit. This synconium, which can contain up to 7000 flowers, depending on the fig species, has a tiny hole at the tip called an ostiole. In order for the flowers to be pollinated and the fruit to grow, a female wasp must squeeze through that hole, often losing her wings and antennae in the process, and distribute pollen that she carries in a sac on her abdomen. As she does so, she also uses her ovipositor to reach down into some of the female flowers and lay her eggs in their ovaries, where a gall is formed and the larvae can develop. Then she dies and ends up in a cookie. The End.

But hold on, let’s remove humans from the equation for a moment. She dies, but her eggs hatch into little moth larvae which use the growing fig for nutrition. Once they’re old enough, the young wasps mate with one another inside the fig (another nice mental image for snacktime), and the females gather pollen from the male flowers and store it inside their abdominal pollen baskets (yes, that’s actually what they’re called). The wingless male wasps have a simple, three step life: 1) mate with females, 2) chew a hole through the fig so they can leave, 3) die. That’s pretty much it for them. They may escape the nursery with the females, but they’ll die shortly thereafter, regardless. In fact, even the females have a pretty rough deal; from the time they’re old enough to mate, they have about forty-eight hours to get their eggs fertilized, gather pollen, find a new synconium, distribute the pollen, and lay their eggs. Two days, and their life is over. No pursuit of happiness for the fig wasp, I’m afraid.

“What does it all mean?”
(Via: BugGuide.net)

As with any long-standing mutualism, there are, of course, parasites ready and waiting to take advantage of it. These parasites are wasps which are able to enter the synconium and lay their eggs, but which do not pollinate the fig. Although their eggs will crowd out those of the fig wasps, decreasing the number of fig wasp larvae born, they are kept in check by the fact that any unpollinated synconium will be aborted by the tree and drop to the ground, taking the parasite eggs with it. The nonpollinating wasps are therefore kept from being a serious threat to the tree’s pollinators.

So there you have it, another of evolution’s great matches. The wasps get an edible nursery, the trees get pollinated, and we get tasty fruits with suspicious crunchy bits that probably aren’t dead wasp bodies, so just try not to think about it too much…

Seeds, or wasp eggs? You be the judge!
(Via: This Site)

[Fun Fact: The symbiosis between fig species and their corresponding wasp partners is so specific (often 1:1), that the shape of the ostiole actually matches the shape of the head of the wasp species which will pollinate it.]

[For those who would like to read about figs and fig wasps in much greater detail (such as how this works when the male and female flowers are in different figs), check out this excellent site for all you could ever want to know.]

Says Who?

  • Compton et al. (2010) Biology Letters 6: 838-842
  • Cook et al. (2004) Journal of Evolutionary Biology 17: 238-246
  • Kjellberg et al. (2001)Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Biology 268: 1113-1121
  • Proffit et al. (2009) Entomologia Experimentalis et Applicata 131: 46-57
  • Zhang et al. (2009) Naturwissenschaften 96: 543-549

The Plight of the Spheroid Seaweed (Aegagropila linnaei)

Everyone’s Favourite Freshwater Pet
(via: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki)

Common Name: Lake Balls, Marimo

A.K.A.: Aegagropila linnaei

Found: Japan, Iceland, Scotland, Estonia, Germany

It Does What?!

Sure, you’ve had dogs and cats as pets, maybe even fish or lizards… but what about a big ball of algae? Probably not, but if you live in Japan, this idea won’t seem so odd.

Lake balls, or marimo, as the Japanese refer to them, are a rare and unique growth form of the filamentous green algae species Aegagropila linnaei. They occur in only a few isolated habitats worldwide because, unlike most algae, the species lacks a desiccation (dryness) resistant life stage which would allow it to be carried to distant bodies of water. The balls are formed from a densely-packed clump of algal strands which grow outward in all directions, and can reach up to 25cm (10 inches) in diameter. New balls can form from the free-floating form of the same species, or from the breakup and re-growth of an old ball. Found in shallow lakes with sandy bottoms, gentle wave action rolls the clump around, forming a near-perfect sphere and allowing all sides of the ball to receive light for photosynthesis. Seen rolling lazily around the lake bottom, and even rising and falling on columns of warm water, the marimo can almost seem sentient.

It is this bizarre movement and their strangely beautiful appearance which have made marimo so popular in Japan, where they are protected as a “natural monument” and even appear on postage stamps. Unfortunately, it has also been their downfall. Because the algae reside in fresh water and are adapted to low light conditions, they are easily cared for, leading many people to collect them and keep them in their homes. The Japanese believed that a healthy, well looked-after marimo would make the owner’s wishes come true. Lake balls eventually became so rare, due to both human collecting and pollution, that in the early 1950s, a campaign was launched asking Japanese citizens to return their beloved marimo to the lakes from which they had been taken. Impressively, people did so, and in large numbers. In honour of their selflessness, the first annual marimo festival was held, and has continued ever since. Today, the lake ball has become an important environmental symbol in Japan, and children even have their own stuffed marimo toy character, Marimokkori, to play with.

Japanese kids have the best toys, no?

Says Who?

  • Boedeker et al. (2010) BioScience 60(3): 187-198
  • Soejima et al. (2009) Aquatic Ecology 43: 359-370
  • www.marimoballs.com