Sex & the Reign of the Red Queen

Why sexual species beat clones every time.


“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.”

From a simple reproductive perspective, males are not a good investment. With apologies to my Y chromosome-bearing readers, let me explain. Consider for a moment a population of clones. Let’s go with lizards, since this actually occurs in lizards. So we have our population of lizard clones. They are all female, and are all able to reproduce, leading to twice the potential for creating more individuals as we see in a species that reproduces sexually, in which only 50% of the members can bear young. Males require all the same resources to survive to maturity, but cannot directly produce young. From this viewpoint alone, the population of clones should out-compete a bunch of sexually-reproducing lizards every time. Greater growth potential. What’s more, the clonal lizards can better exploit a well-adapted set of genes (a “genotype”); if one of them is well-suited to survive in its environment, they all are.

Now consider a parasite that preys upon our hypothetical lizards. The parasites themselves have different genotypes, and a given parasite genotype can attack certain host (i.e. lizard) genotypes, like keys that fit certain locks. Over time, they will evolve to be able to attack the most common host genotype, because that results in their best chance of survival. If there’s an abundance of host type A, but not much B or C, then more A-type parasites will succeed in reproducing, and over time, there will be more A-type parasites overall. This is called a selection pressure, in favour of A-type parasites. In a population of clones, however, there is only one genotype, and once the parasites have evolved to specialise in attacking it, the clones have met their match. They are all equally vulnerable.

The sexual species, however, presents a moving target. This is where males become absolutely worth the resources it takes to create and maintain their existence (See? No hard feelings). Each time a sexual species mates, its genes are shuffled and recombined in novel ways. There are both common and rare genotypes in a sexual population. The parasite population will evolve to be able to attack the most common genotype, as they do with the clones, but in this case, it will be a far smaller portion of the total host population. And as soon as that particular genotype starts to die off and become less common, a new genotype, once rare (and now highly successful due to its current resistance to parasites), will fill the vacuum and become the new ‘most common’ genotype. And so on, over generations and generations.

Both species, parasite and host, must constantly evolve simply to maintain the status quo. This is where the Red Queen hypothesis gets its name: in Wonderland, the Red Queen tells Alice, “here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.” For many years, evolution was thought of as a journey with an endpoint: species would evolve until they were optimally adapted to their environment, and then stay that way until the environment changed in some fashion. If this was the case, however, we would expect that a given species would be less likely to go extinct the longer it had existed, because it would be better and better adapted over time. And yet, the evidence didn’t seem to bear this prediction out. The probability of extinction seemed to stay the same regardless of the species’ age. We now know that this is because the primary driver of evolution isn’t the environment, but competition between species. And that’s a game you can lose at any time.

Passionflower. Photo by Yone Moreno on Wikimedia Commons.

Now the parasite attacking the lizards was just a (very plausible) hypothetical scenario, but there are many interesting cases of the Red Queen at work in nature. And it’s not all subtly shifting genotypes, either; sometimes it’s a full on arms race. Behold the passionflower. In the time of the dinosaurs, passionflowers developed a mutually beneficial pollinator relationship with longwing butterflies. The flowers got pollinated, the butterflies got nectar. But then, over time, the butterflies began to lay their eggs on the vines’ leaves. Once the eggs hatched, the young would devour the leaves, leaving the plant much the worse for wear. In response, the passionflowers evolved to produce cyanide in their leaves, poisoning the butterfly larvae. The butterflies then turned the situation to their advantage by evolving the ability to not only eat the poisonous leaves, but to sequester the cyanide in their bodies and use it to themselves become poisonous to their predators, such as birds. The plants’ next strategy was to mimic the butterflies’ eggs. Longwing butterflies will not lay their eggs on a leaf which is already holding eggs, so the passionflowers evolved nectar glands of the same size and shape as a butterfly egg. After aeons of this back and forth, the butterflies are currently laying their eggs on the tendrils of the passionflower vines rather than the leaves, and we might expect that passionflowers will next develop tendrils which appear to have butterfly eggs on them. These sorts of endless, millennia-spanning arms races are common in nature. Check out my article on cuckoos for a much more murderous example.

Egg-like glands at the base of the passionflower leaf (the white dots on my index finger).

Had the passionflowers in this example been a clonal species, they wouldn’t likely have stood a chance. Innovations such as higher-than-average levels of cyanide or slightly more bulbous nectar glands upon which defences can be built come from uncommon genotypes. Uncommon genotypes produced by the shuffling of genes that occurs in every generation in sexual species.

And that, kids, is why sex is such as fantastic innovation. (Right?) Every time an illness goes through your workplace, and everybody seems to get it but you, you’ve probably got the Red Queen (and your uncommon genotype) to thank.



  • Brockhurst et al. (2014) Proc. R. Soc. B 281: 20141382.
  • Lively (2010) Journal of Heredity 101 (supple.): S13-S20 [See this paper for a very interesting full explanation of this links between the Red Queen hypothesis and the story by Lewis Carroll.]
  • Vanderplank, John. “Passion Flowers, 2nd Ed.” Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996.

*The illustration at the top of the page is by Sir John Tenniel for Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass,” and is now in the public domain.

Cuckoos: Outsourcing Childcare, Hogging the Bed

(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:
Shrikes… don’t try to outsmart a bird that kills mammals for sport.

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

Hidden Kingdom, Part Two


Common Name: Leafcutter Ants

A.K.A.: Genera Atta and Acromyrmex of Tribe Attini

Vital Stats:

  • Fungi grown by leafcutter ants come from the family Agaricaceae
  • Ant species can maintain their association with a specific fungal cultivar for millennia
  • Neither the ants nor the fungal cultivars can survive outside of the symbiosis
  • Some ant species are capable of completely defoliating a small tree in under a day

Found: Humid forests of Central and South America

Leafcutter Map

It Does What?!

Last week, we looked at leafcutter colonies, their various castes, and the impressively long lives of ant sperm. But obviously, leafcutter ants are known principally for one thing- cutting leaves. This they do on a grand scale, forming lines of thousands upon thousands of ants, dutifully toting chucks of foliage back to their colony. Why? To fertilize their fungus, of course! Much as we like to think of agriculture as one of the crowning achievements of mankind, the fact is, ants came up with it much earlier than we did. About 50 million years earlier, actually. (But they haven’t figured out how to deep-fry anything yet, so there’s that, I guess.)

caption (Via:
The fungus is hungry.

When a young queen leaves her original colony to found a new one, she carries in her mouth a small piece of fungus to use as a starter culture (think yogurt or sourdough bread) for the colony’s gardens. Initially, she will care for this culture alone, but once the first generation of workers is born, they will take over the task from that point on. Since fungi don’t photosynthesize, they’re perfectly happy in a pitch-black underground garden, but they still need nutrients with which to grow, and dead vegetation is their food of choice. As the larger worker castes return with leaf (and flower) fragments up to three times their own mass, the minima gardeners clean away any outside fungal spores and chew the vegetation into smaller and smaller pieces. They then mix the shredded leaves with fungus and add the mixture to the garden. And, just for an extra fertiliser kick, they mix in their own faeces. Waste not, want not, right?

With all the workers coming and going, and so much foreign vegetation entering the colony, infections of the garden by competing fungal spores are inevitable, despite the ants’ best efforts. One such invader is the fungus Escovopsis, a parasite of other fungi, which can decimate a colony’s food supply and, in the case of young and vulnerable colonies, sometimes cause them to fail entirely.

caption (Via:)
I use the term “garden” loosely…
(Via: Marietta College)

But the ants have a secret weapon: bacteria. These adaptive little farmers actually carry around a ready supply of antimicrobial compounds right on their bodies. The bacterium in question, Pseudonocardia, grows directly on the ants’ exoskeletons and, researchers suspect, is nourished by a substance excreted through the ant’s glands. In return, Pseudonocardia produces a compound that the farmers can spread on invading fungus, killing it without damaging their food source. Symbioses within symbioses… and these are just the ones we know about.

Meanwhile, outside the colony, another fascinating parasite threatens the workers. Known as phorid flies, or ant-decapitating flies, you can probably guess why these things are a problem. Female phorid flies land on the backs of the larger worker ants as they travel to and from their leaf harvesting sites, laying eggs on the worker’s thorax. Once the eggs hatch, the larvae work their way into the ant’s head and start to eat the tissue surrounding the brain, eventually moving on to the brain itself (causing aimless wandering behaviour similar to that caused by the zombie ant fungus). Finally, the young parasites secrete an enzyme which causes the ant’s head to fall off completely, leaving them a convenient vessel in which to finish their development into adults.

They’ve evolved everything but the ability to look behind them.

Not to be outsmarted (by anything, apparently), leafcutter ants instituted a policy of defensive piggyback rides. Workers on the foraging path carry tiny minima ants on their backs as they travel. The minimae are too small to be useful hosts for the phorid fly, and so are able to fearlessly attack the flies as they approach, keeping the foragers safe. And not to lose an opportunity for increased efficiency, the little passenger will also begin cleaning the leaf fragment as the larger worker carries it home.

So there you have it. Leafcutter ants form colonies of millions, assign specialised tasks to different classes of citizens, grow their own crops, excel at problem-solving, and know how to use antibiotics. Next to humans, they form the largest and most complex societies on Earth. Forget robots and computers, people- if anything’s going to gain sentience and overthrow humanity, my money’s on the ants.

[Fun Fact: They compost, too. At least one leafcutter species maintains ‘outdoor’ waste heaps of discarded leaves and fungus. Special disposal workers (often old or unhealthy ants) turn the heap regularly to speed up decomposition.]

Says Who?

  • Marietta College Leafcutter Ant Page

  • Dijkstra & Boomsma (2006) Insectes Sociaux 53: 136-140
  • Evison & Hughes (2011) Naturwissenschaften 98: 643-649
  • Evison & Ratnieks (2007) Ecological Entomology 32: 451-454
  • Holman et al. (2011) Molecular Ecology 20: 5092-5102
  • Mueller et al. (2008) Evolution 62(11): 2894-2912

Charity Among Vampires

(Via: National Geographic)

Common Name: The Vampire Bat

A.K.A.: Subfamily Desmodontinae

Vital Stats:

  • Subfamily contains three species; the common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus), the hairy-legged vampire bat (Diphylla ecaudata), and the white-winged vampire bat (Diaemus youngi)
  • All three feed only on blood, a phenomenon known as hematophagy
  • The common vampire bat feeds primarily on mammals, while the other two species prefer avian blood
  • Can live up to 20 years in captivity

Found: Throughout Mexico, Central America, and all but the most southern reaches of South America

It Does What?!

Several years ago while on a botanical expedition in the rainforests of South America, I woke one morning to find that one of the other team members, still fast asleep in his hammock, had – apparently – been stabbed in the shoulder during the night. A surprising amount of blood had run down his arm, and yet he snored peacefully away. What the hell had happened to this guy, and was he the world’s deepest sleeper, or what?

Nope. Turns out he had just unwittingly provided a good meal for Desmodus rotundus… the common vampire bat.

As horrifying as it may seem to have flying vermin drinking your blood whilst you sleep, it’s really not as bad as pop culture would have us believe. The bats are more scavenger than predator. To begin with, they prefer stealth and guile to any kind of open attack. Sleeping animals are best, and victims are never approached from the air, Caped Crusader-style. Instead, the bat will land nearby and walk on all-fours over to its prey. From there, it uses heat sensors in its nose (similar to some snakes) to detect where blood vessels pass close to the surface of the skin. In cows, another favourite blood donor of Desmodus, bites are usually just above the hooves or around the ears.

Breakfast of Champions
(Via: National Geographic)

Also contrary to popular belief, the bites are never violent; they’re more like a tiny nick from a very sharp razor- painless, but they tend to bleed a lot. In this case, they’re bleeding a lot because the bat’s saliva contains anticoagulents, preventing the blood from clotting. The bat will lap at the cut with its tongue (no blood-sucking here), transferring saliva into the wound, which will sometimes continue to bleed for hours afterward.

An entire feeding session takes the bat only about 20 minutes, during which time it can consume up to half its own weight in blood. How is this possible? Vampire bats have an amazingly efficient excretory system; the plasma (liquid) portion of the blood is immediately absorbed and passed through the kidneys. Within minutes of beginning to feed, the vampire starts to pee at the same time, and continues to do so until its meal has been reduced to a manageable volume. (Did they leave this part out of the Twilight movies?)

Creepy as these little beasts may seem, they have a surprisingly enlightened social structure. Vampire bats have been cited by animal behaviourists as one of the few examples of reciprocal altruism (“tit for tat”) in nature. You see, the vampire lifestyle is a bit precarious- a bat will die if it fails to feed for two successive nights. As a lifesaving measure, a bat in such dire straits will actually beg another bat for food. The other bat will then regurgitate some of its meal – just enough to make do – into its hungry neighbour’s mouth. Impressively, the bats even keep score. A hungry animal will turn preferentially to a bat it has helped out in the past, and cheaters are recognised and allowed to starve.

“Okay, what do we learn to imitate next?”

Far from being mindless, aggressive little monsters, vampire bats are altruistic, intelligent creatures. How intelligent? Researchers who housed a vampire bat with a hen observed the bat to mimic the behaviour of a chick so effectively that the hen settled down on top of the bat as she would to keep a baby warm. The bat then nicked her on the stomach and drank her blood while she tried to mother it.

Now that’s just creepy.

[Fun Fact: Vampire bats listen to the rhythm of an animal’s breathing to determine whether or not it’s asleep. They prefer to return to a victim they’ve had previous success with, and evidence suggests that they can identify individual humans by their breathing noises in the same way that we recognise individuals by their voices.]

[Also: The common vampire bat can jump up to three feet off the ground to reach large prey.]

Says Who?

  • Groger & Wiegrebe (2006) BMC Biology 4:18
  • Lee et al. (2012) PloS ONE 7(8): e42466
  • Schutt (2008) Natural History, November Issue, pg.22
Become a donor today!
(Via: Vampire Legends)

The Stench of Death, brought to you by the Forests of Sumatra

(Via: The Parasitic Plant Connection)

Common Name: Giant Rafflesia

A.K.A.: Rafflesia arnoldii

Vital Stats:

  • One of about 28 species of Rafflesia, all parasites native to southeast Asia
  • Dioecious: produces male and female flowers on separate plants
  • Flowers last only a few days

Found: In the rainforests of Sumatra, Western Indonesia

It Does What?!

In my very first post here on Questionable Evolution, I discussed the Titan Arum, a.k.a. Corpse Plant, known for its pungent aroma and generally phallic appearance. This rare oddity is confined to the ever-shrinking rainforests of the western Indonesian island of Sumatra. Now meet its neighbour and fellow rotting flesh imitator, the Giant Rafflesia. Like the Titan Arum, this species is found only in the Sumatran rainforest and uses its odour to attract carrion flies for pollination. (With all the plants pretending to be dead animals on this island, it’s a wonder the flies ever actually find themselves any real carcasses.)

How big?  THAT big.
(With Mr. Troy Davis, Via: The Parasitic Plant Connection)

Rafflesia’s claim to fame in the plant world is that it produces the largest flower on Earth. A single bloom from Rafflesia arnoldii can reach a diameter of 1m (3.3’) and a mass of up to 7kg (15lbs.). In other words, one flower weighs about as much as your overweight cat. Impressive, sure, but what’s more interesting about this plant is that the flower’s the only part of it you’re ever likely to see.

Much like dodder, rafflesia is a holoparasite, depending entirely on a host plant (in this case, a vine of genus Tetrastigma, part of the grape family) for its water and nutrients. Unlike dodder, however, rafflesia doesn’t grow up and over its victim, eventually smothering it- no, this plant grows inside its host. Over the course of its evolution, the leaves, roots, and stems of rafflesia have been reduced to nothing but miniscule threads that grow, fungus-like, through the intercellular spaces of another plant, absorbing whatever they require. The giant flower arises directly from the roots or stem of the host vine, pushed out through the host’s tissues. Think chestbursters from Alien. Beyond the juvenile phase when a new seedling searches for its host, this is the only part of rafflesia that will ever see the light of day.

Flowering Time!!

Interestingly, botanists have found that rafflesia’s giant flowers evolved over a very short period of time (relatively speaking), with flower diameter increases of, on average, 20cm per million years. Blindingly fast, as plant evolution goes. The reason for this, they speculate, may have been a preference on the part of certain carrion flies to feed on larger animal carcasses. The range of flower sizes seen in different species of genus Rafflesia probably functions to attract different sets of fly species with varying tastes – some want wee little dead mice, some want dead rhinoceros, judging from the size of these things.

Plants: give ‘em a few million years, and they can mimic almost anything.

Says Who?

  • Barkman et al. (2008) Current Biology 18: 1508-1513
  • Beaman et al. (1988) American Journal of Botany 75(8): 1148-1162
  • Patifino et al. (2002) New Phytologist 154: 429-437

Ergot: Bringing the Crazy Since 800 A.D.

(Via: The University of Illinois Extension Collection)

Common Name: Ergot, Ergot of Rye

A.K.A.: Claviceps purpurea (and other Claviceps species)

Vital Stats:

  • Around 30-40 species in genus Claviceps, all parasites of various types of grasses
  • Parasitizes rye, barley, and wheat crops in temperate regions
  • Problematic in Africa due to its parasitism of sorghum and millet

Found: Throughout temperate and tropical regions, though historically most problematic in Europe, Africa, and North America

It Does What?!

Disrupts human history and generally scares the hell out of people, to put it mildly. But before we get into that, let’s start with what this stuff is. An ergot infection begins when a microscopic fungal spore lands on the open floret of a grass plant. In northern agricultural areas, rye and, to a lesser extent, barley are particularly susceptible to these spores. Once on the receptive flower, the spore behaves as though it were a pollen grain, growing down the style until it reaches the ovary. At this point, it destroys the ovary and links into the adjoining vascular tissue, where it can parasitize the plant for nutrients.

With plenty of food on tap, the fungus grows into the space that the grain would have otherwise filled. Early on, it forms into a soft, white mass that causes a sugary liquid to drip from the flower. This liquid is filled with spores and is spread to other plants by hungry insects as they fly from flower to flower. Later in the growing season, around the time neighbouring non-parasitized grains are ripening, the fungal mass dries and hardens into a sclerotium (a sort of fungal seed body) that looks a bit like wild rice, and drops to the ground. This sclerotium will sit dormant on the ground until spring, when moisture will cause it to sprout small mushrooms, which produce spores for the new season.

Hint: Wild rice doesn’t do this when you get it wet.

Still reading? Good. Here’s the interesting part. Let’s say you’re a farmer in the Middles Ages, and the infected plants in question are in your field. Before the ergot sclerotia drop to the ground, they get harvested with the rest of the crop, and end up getting made into bread for you and your family. Well, it turns out those sclerotia are full of a toxic alkaloid called ergotamine, and after eating enough loaves of bread to build the compound up in your systems, you and your nearest and dearest have contracted ergotism. Fed some of that rye to your cows? Now they’ve got it, too!

Ergotism delivers a one-two punch of physical and psychological symptoms. Physically, the alkaloid constricts blood vessels, leading to an intense burning sensation in the arms and legs which can eventually cause gangrene and loss of the entire limb. Some sufferers also develop a persistent ringing in the ears. That’s before the seizures and untimely death set in. Psychologically… well, it makes you crazy. As in, hallucinations and irrational behaviour, which lead many victims to be ostracised by their communities. Ergotism is speculated to have been the cause of the Dancing Mania (not as fun as it sounds) that hit Europe in the Middle Ages. Huge numbers of people were struck by an uncontrollable urge to dance – violently and while screaming – until they collapsed from exhaustion. Did I mention that this stuff is where LSD came from? The drug was originally synthesised from ergotamine, handily delivering all the craziness with none of the gangrenous limb loss.

Nope, nothing suspicious-looking here.
(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

The cure for all this horror? Well, if you got to it early enough, simply not eating any more contaminated grain would cause symptoms to slowly abate. Unfortunately for medieval peasants, who ate a lot of rye and suffered most of history’s outbreaks, the cause of the disease was completely unknown. Weird-looking sclerotia were so common that they were thought to be a natural feature of rye. That old standby, “It’s the wrath of God” actually seemed supported, since sufferers who left the affected area on pilgrimages immediately began to show improvement (hence another term for the disease, ‘Holy Fire’). Sadly, it took the better part of a millennium before someone worked out what was really going on, and major outbreaks occurred right up to the 19th century. Even in the 21st century, minor outbreaks have occurred in developing countries, such as the case in Ethiopia in 2001, caused by infected barley.

Speaking of disrupting human history, some researchers have speculated that an ergotism outbreak caused the strange behaviour that resulted in the Salem witch trials of the late 17th century. Others have disputed this claim, noting, among other points, that ergotism was known and recognisable by this point in history. We may never know for sure.

[For other historical events in which ergotism may have played a role, check out the first reference below.]

[Fun Fact: Due to its action as a vasoconstrictor, ergotamine is now used, in purified form, to treat migraines and post-natal bleeding.]

Says Who?

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)