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

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)

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

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)