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)
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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

How to Stay Cool the Lungfish Way

Via: Science News for Kids

Common Name: The Lungfish

A.K.A.: Subclass Dipnoi

Vital Stats:

  • 6 species; 4 in Africa, 1 in South America, 1 in Australia
  • Some species can reach up to 2m (6.6’) long and weigh 43kg (95lbs.)
  • Omnivorous, eating plants, insects, crustaceans, worms, fish, and frogs
  • Largest genome of all terrestrial vertebrates at ~133 billion base pairs

Found: Slow-moving freshwater bodies in South America, Africa, and Australia

It Does What?!

Well, they’re not much to look at, but in the “quietly carrying on while everything drops dead around you” department, the lungfishes are tops. These large, eel-looking creatures are what biologists refer to as “living fossils”, species which have existed in more or less their present form for a very, very long time. In the case of the lungfishes, around 400 million years. For the sake of comparison, this was around the same period that plants developed roots and leaves. That long ago. In fact, researchers believe that the lungfishes are the closest living relatives of the terrestrial vertebrates (that is, anything with a spinal column that lives on land).

These will probably outlast humanity.
Via: One More Generation

So what makes these things so interesting, besides being old? First off, they breathe air, as you might have guessed from their name. Australian lungfishes have a single lung, and, while they normally breathe through their gills, are able to supplement their oxygen intake with air during times of high exertion or when their water gets stale (Fun side note: During mating, Australian lungfishes make loud burping noises at the surface of the water which are thought to be part of the courtship ritual. I’ll refrain from making any Aussie jokes here… ). African and South American lungfishes, on the other hand, have two lungs and breathe nothing but air. Their gills are completely atrophied, such that they could actually drown if kept under for much longer than their usual 5-8 minutes between breaths.

“Hey! I’m trying to aestivate in here!”
Photo by: Tobias Musschoot

This ability to breathe without water results in the other fantastic ability of subclass Dipnoi. South American and African lungfish live in habitats which often dry up completely during the hottest part of the year. The fishes’ gross but brilliant answer to this is to burrow up to half a metre down into the soft mud and excrete a huge amount of mucous. As the surrounding mud dries up, the mucous forms a hard shell which keeps the curled up lungfish moist and cool. A small hole at the top of this snot-cocoon allows the fish to breathe. It’s metabolism slowed to only a small fraction of the normal rate, the creature will aestivate (like ‘hibernate’, but without the cold) like this for several months until the rains return. Laboratory experiments have shown that an African lungfish can remain alive under these conditions for as long as six years.

“Granddad”: probably older than your Granddad
Via: Shedd Aquarium

Aside from their amazing survival abilities, these fish have unusual lives, as fish go. They are extraordinarily long-lived. The Shedd Aquarium in Chicago holds an Australian lungfish known as “Granddad” which arrived there as an adult in 1933, making him at least 80 years old. Females of this species don’t even mate until they’re at least 22 years old (or so they tell their parents). What’s more, some species actually care for their young. The mother and father build an underwater nest for their offspring, which can only breathe via their semi-atrophied gills for the first seven weeks, and the father uses his body to release additional oxygen into the surrounding water, helping them to breathe. So, dual childcare: not such a new idea after all.

[Extra Credit –  Here’s a short video of a lungfish being stalked by a pelican. Spoiler: It ends badly for the lungfish.]

Says Who?

  • Brinkmann et al. (2004) Journal of Molecular Evolution 59: 834-848
  • Fishman et al. (1992) Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 136(1): 61-72
  • Glass (2008) Respiratory Physiology & Neurobiology 160: 18-20
  • Joss (2006) General and Comparative Endocrinology 148: 285-289
  • Lee et al. (2006) General and Comparative Endocrinology 148: 306-314
  • www.fishbase.org

The Stinging Tree, or, Australia Hates Mammals

Can’t Touch This
(via: anhs.com.au)

Common Name: Stinging Tree, Gympie-Gympie

A.K.A.: Dendrocnide moroides

Found: Rainforests of Northeastern Australia

It Does What?!

Australia, which was apparently intended only for the very bravest of human beings, is home to many of the world’s most poisonous snakes, spiders, and scorpions. Even the surrounding ocean is exceptional for the number of ridiculously venomous species it contains. Still, a person could be forgiven for thinking that, so long as they stay out of the water and keep away from the creepy-crawlies, they’ll be okay. Ha ha ha… nope. In Australia, everything is out to get you.

Meet Gympie-Gympie, the Stinging Tree (or to be more accurate, stinging shrub). Growing in rainforest clearings and along creek edges- anywhere the canopy is broken- this two metre (6.5ft) high plant has large, heart-shaped leaves and juicy purple fruit. And every square centimetre of it, from the soil on up, is covered in tiny, poison-filled hypodermic needles. These hollow silicon needles are delicate enough to break off at the slightest touch, leaving them embedded in the skin of whatever creature was unfortunate enough to do so. The skin will often then close over them, making the needles nearly impossible to remove. The substance they’re filled with is a very potent neurotoxin with a very long shelf life- herbarium specimens of the plant collected in 1910 are still able to cause pain. And since the body is unable to break down silicon, this all adds up to a very long punishment for a very small mistake.

Go on, I dare you.
(Photo by Melanie Cook)

A brief brush against a stinging tree produces intense pain that peaks after about half an hour, but can literally take years to subside completely. Numerous dogs and horses have died because the pain was so intense. There is even one official record of a human having died- a Dutch botanist of the 1920s. Oddly enough, no actual tissue damage is done by the neurotoxin- death due to the plant is attributed to heart failure due to the shock of the pain, described by one researcher, Dr. Marina Hurley, as “like being burnt with hot acid and electrocuted at the same time.” An ex-serviceman who fell right into one of the trees while crossing a creek in the 1940s describes having had to be tied down to his hospital bed for three weeks because the discomfort was so intense. One intrepid/insane researcher actually purified the neurotoxin and injected himself with it, suffering terribly and thereby proving that the toxin, rather than the needles, causes the majority of the pain. But not all of it… simply standing near a gympie-gympie for an extended period can cause allergic reactions and nosebleeds as the needles are shed in the wind.

“I eat neurotoxins for breakfast.”
(Via: Billabong Sanctuary)

So this must be just about the best herbivore-defence system ever, right? Amusingly, no. The trees still undergo heavy damage due to hungry spiders, ants, snails, and especially beetles, all of which can avoid its defences. The tree is even prey to one species of marsupial, the red-legged pademelon, which is either immune to the neurotoxin or has enormous pain tolerance. So why develop this extensive arsenal if it’s completely ineffective? One expert has suggested that it may have evolved to protect the plants from the now long-extinct giant Diprotodonts which once inhabited the Australian rainforest, making it one more dangerous relic of a long-ended war. You win, stinging tree, you win.

[Fun Fact: The best way to attempt to remove some of those poisonous silicon needles embedded in your arm?  Wax hair removal strips, according to the Queensland ambulance service.]

Says Who?

Every Day is a Crappy Day for the Bird-Dropping Spider (Celaenia excavata)

Celaenia excavata
(via: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki)

Common Name: The Bird-dropping Spider

A.K.A.: Celaenia excavata

Found: Eastern and Southern Coastal Australia

It Does What?!

Quick, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind when someone says “disgustingly inedible” ?

If you said “Why, poop, of course!”… congratulations, you think just like Celaenia excavata. And if the thing you’re trying to look inedible to is a bird, naturally, you go with bird poop. Such is the evolutionary reasoning behind the politely-named Bird-Dropping Spider. And while remaining motionless is a must, looking the way it does allows the spider to sit comfortably atop a leaf all day, secure in the knowledge that spiders’ main predators, birds and wasps (who apparently aren’t into eating bird poop either), won’t take an interest.

“Nobody here but us droppings.”
(Thanks to Ron Atkinson at http://www.findaspider.org.au)

But the mimicry doesn’t end there for this sneaky little guy- by day it sits inactive and gross-looking, but by night, it hangs upside down from a leaf and releases the mating pheromones of a female moth. When some unlucky male moth comes looking for a good time, the spider snatches it right out of the air with its powerful front legs and wraps it up for dinner. The moth may be eaten right away or, if its capturer isn’t feeling hungry quite yet, be hung under a leaf next to the spider’s egg sacs, which, oddly enough, look like nuts (see top photo).

Believe it or not, Celaenia excavata isn’t the only spider out there masquerading as merde. Another such trickster is Mastophora cornigera, a North American species which is part of a group known as the Bolas Spiders, or Fishing Spiders. Not content to hope their prey wanders into arm’s reach, bolas spiders release pheromones to attract male moths, then dangle a line of silk with a sticky blob on the end. Once a moth gets close enough, the spider swings its line and –yoink– rips the poor thing right out of mid-air. Whoever thought up Spiderman’s web-slinger clearly had a bolas spider in mind.

So there you have it, the leisurely lifestyle of a successful spider: pile of poo by day, upside-down fisherman by night.

Says Who?