Advertising in the Wild… Not So Very Different (Ophrys sp.)

(Via: lastdragon.org)

Common Name: Bee Orchids

A.K.A.: Genus Ophrys

Vital Stats:

  • 30-40 recognised species in the genus
  • Grows to a height of 15-50 cm (6-20”)
  • The name Ophrys comes from a word meaning “eyebrow” in Greek, for the fuzzy edges of the petals
  • First mentioned in ancient Roman literature by Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.)

Found: Throughout most of Europe and the British Isles

It Does What?!

We tend to think of animals (including humans) as using plants to serve our ends exclusively- we eat them, clothe ourselves with them, build homes with them, and so on. But for all the obvious ways in which the animal kingdom takes advantage of the plants, there are numerous, more subtle, ways that they use us to do their bidding. One of those ways is as pollinators; plants enlist animals to help them reproduce. And while that enlistment often takes a rather mundane form – a bit of pollen brushed onto a bird’s head as it sips nectar, say – sometimes a group of plants will get a bit more creative about it. Such is the case with the bee orchids.

These highly specialised flowers depend on very specific relationships with their pollinators; often only a single species of bee (or wasp, in some cases) will pollinate a given species of orchid. Without those pollinators, the orchids can’t produce seed and would die out. So how do you control a free-roving creature that has other places to be? Why, sex, obviously. (Isn’t that the basis of most advertising?) The bee orchid has evolved a flower that not only looks, but smells like a virgin female of the bee species which pollinates it.

May not be appropriate for younger readers.
(Via: This Site)

At a distance, the bee detects the pheromones of a receptive female. Once he moves in closer, there she is, sitting on a flower, minding her own business. So he flies in and attempts to do his man-bee thing, only to find that he’s just tried to mate with a plant. Mortified (I imagine), he takes off, but with a small packet of pollen stuck to his head. He’s memorised the scent of this flower now and won’t return to it, but amazingly, the orchids vary their scent just slightly from one flower to the next, even on the same plant, so that the duped bee can never learn to distinguish an orchid from a female. What’s more, because the scent is more different between plants than between flowers on the same plant, he is more likely to proceed to a different plant, decreasing the chances that an orchid will self-fertilise.

Hilariously, researchers have shown that, due to their higher levels of scent variation compared to true female bees (variety being the spice of life, right guys?), male bees actually prefer the artificial pheromones of the orchids over real, live females. In experiments where males were given a choice between mating with an orchid and mating with a bee, they usually chose the flower, even if they had already experienced the real thing.

So there you have it. Plants: master manipulators of us poor, stupid animals.

Who could resist?
(Via: Wikia)

Says Who?

  • Ayasse et al. (2000) Evolution 54(6): 1995-2006
  • Ayasse et al. (2003) Proceedings of the Royal Society, London B. 270: 517-522
  • Streinzer et al. (2009) Journal of Experimental Biology 212: 1365-1370
  • Vereecken & Schiestl (2008) Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 105(21): 7484-7488
  • Vereecken et al. (2010) Botanical Review 76: 220-240

EVOLUTION TAG TEAM, Part 1: Acacia Domatia

The first in an ongoing series of biology’s greatest duos. (Here’s Part 2 and Part 3)

Home, Sweet Home.
(via: Flickr)

Common Name (Plants): Bullhorn Acacias, Whistling Thorns

  • A.K.A.: Acacia cornigera, Acacia drepanolobium, and several other Acacia species

Common Name (Ants): Acacia Ants

  • A.K.A.: Pseudomyrmex and Crematogaster species

Found: Central America (Bullhorn Acacias) and East Africa (Whistling Thorns)

It Does What?!

Life as a tree is tough, particularly when you live in a part of the world that’s home to the biggest herbivores on Earth and happen to have delicate, delicious leaves. Such is the case for the African acacias. Without sufficient defences, they’d be gobbled up in no time by elephants, rhinos, and giraffes. The trees are known for having huge, sharp thorns, but even that’s sometimes not enough; the lips and tongues of giraffes are so tough and dexterous, they can often strip the leaves right out from between the thorns. So what’s a stressed acacia to do? Recruit a freaking army, that’s what.

Pseudomyrmex ferruginea: the giraffe’s worst enemy.
(Photo by April Nobile)

A few species of acacia in both Africa and Central America (where the herbivores are smaller, but no less voracious) have developed a symbiosis wherein they enjoy the services of ant colonies numbering up to 30,000 individuals, tirelessly patrolling their branches 24 hours a day. Should a hungry elephant or goat wander up and take a bite, nearby patrol ants will call in reinforcements and soon the interloper will be utterly overrun with angry, biting ants. What’s more, the protection extends beyond just animal threats. The ants will go so far as to kill other insects, remove fungal pathogens from the surface of the tree and even uproot nearby seedlings because, you know, they might eventually steal some sunlight from the beloved acacia.

“Trespassers Will Be Drawn and Quartered”
(via Wikimedia Commons)

So what do the troops get out of this? Quite a bit, actually. In ant-protected acacias (‘myrmecophytes’, they’re called), the thorns that normally grow at the base of a leaf swell up. In the Central American species, they grow into something that looks like a bull’s horn (hence their common name), while the African ones become more bulbous. These specialized structures, called domatia, are hollow inside and serve as very convenient housing for the ants. What’s more, the trees produce not one, but two different kinds of nourishment for the colony- regular, and baby food. The adult ants will feed from a sweet liquid exuded by nectaries on the branches. Meanwhile, on the tips of the tree’s leaflets, small white structures called Beltian bodies are formed which are high in the protein every growing child ant-larva needs. These are collected by workers and inserted right into the larval pouches, to be eaten before the ants are even fully formed.

The Bullhorn Acacia, now with more Beltian bodies!
(via Flickr)

Sounds like the perfect partnership, right? Usually, yes, but in nature, a symbiosis is only a symbiosis until one side figures out how to take advantage of the other. From the ants’ side, for example, any energy spent by the tree on reproduction is energy not spent on new homes and sweet, sweet nectar for them. Therefore, the ants will sometimes systematically nip all the flowers off the tree as it attempts to bloom. They’ll also prune the acacia’s outward growth if those new shoots may come into contact with a neighbouring tree, allowing invasion by another ant colony. Conversely, if herbivores become scarce and the acacia no longer requires such a strong protection force, it will begin to produce fewer domatia and less nectar in a move to starve some of the ants out. This has been shown to actually be a bad strategy for the acacia, since the soldiers, not to be outsmarted by a tree, turn to farming and begin raising sap-sucking insects on the bark, thereby getting their sugar fix anyway. And so it goes, oscillating between advantageous partnership and opportunistic parasitism… like so many things in life.

The roomier, more spacious African domatium.
(Image by Martin Sharman)

[Side note: While I’ve never personally encountered ant-acacias, I have disturbed an ant-protected tree of another family in the rainforests of Guyana, and can attest to the fact that the retaliation was both swift and intense. I was in a small boat at the edge of a river collecting botanical specimens, and I nearly jumped in the river to escape the onslaught. Don’t mess with ants.]

Says Who?

  • Clement et al. (2008) Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. 62: 953-962.
  • Frederickson (2009) American Naturalist 173(5): 675-681.
  • Huntzinger et al. (2004) Ecology 85(3): 609-614.
  • Janzen (1966) Evolution 20(3): 249-275.
  • Nicklen & Wagner (2006) Oecologia 148: 81-87.
  • Stapley (1998) Oecologia 115: 401-405.

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?

Smells like death, looks like… an Amorphophallus?

Amorphophallus titanum

Common Name(s): Corpse Flower, Titan Arum

A.K.A.: Amorphophallus titanum

Found: Sumatra, Western Indonesia

It Does What?!

Looking like something from an Enterprise away mission, this is a plant you won’t soon forget. For those who imagine that biologists don’t have a sense of humour, the scientific name of the Corpse Flower is Amorphophallus titanum, which is Latin for ‘giant misshapen penis.’ And it’s not a bad description; the plant produces a… well, vaguely penis-shaped bloom that grows up to three feet tall and, as if we needed more to snicker about, produces pulses of heat which move from the base to the tip, reaching temperatures of over 36 degrees Celcius (97 Fahrenheit).

It happens to every Amorphophallus at some point…
(Via: plantae.ca)

It’s actually a bit of a misnomer to call this phallic monstrosity a flower- it’s really an inflorescence, a structure on which smaller, individual flowers grow. In the case of Amorphophallus, that cone in the middle is called a spadix (think calla lilies or jack-in-the-pulpit… same plant family), and holds upwards of 900 tiny flowers, of which about half are male and half are female.

Naturally, all those tiny little flowers need to get pollinated in order to create more giant-penis-plants, and the pollinators of choice for Amorphophallus are carrion beetles and blowflies. How to attract the attention of your favoured pollinators in a busy Sumatran rainforest? You give them what they want – the stench of rotting flesh. Those pulses of heat I mentioned before actually serve a purpose; they work like a convection oven, throwing off a foul odour which rises above the canopy as the warmer air rises. This allows the scent signal to be carried over greater distances. And how bad does it smell? Researchers of the plant note that a principal chemical component of that funk is known to also be the main source of the delicate bouquet that is rotting human flesh. Mmm… For another overly-vivid mental picture, be sure to check out a close relative of the Corpse Flower, Helicodiceros muscivorus, a.k.a. Dead Horse Arum.

Says Who?

  • Barthlott et al. (2009) Plant Biology 11: 499-505.
  • Shirasu et al. (2010) Biosci. Biotechnol. Biochem. 74(12): 2550-2554.