A New Case of Lizard Pollination from South Africa

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With its compact growth habit and small, inconspicuous flowers tucked under its leaves, it seems like Guthriea capensis doesn’t want to be noticed. Indeed, it has earned itself the common name of '“hidden flower.” That’s not to say this plant is unsuccessful. In fact, it seems to do just fine tucked in among high-elevation rock crevices of its home range along the Drakensberg escarpment of South Africa. Despite its cryptic nature, something must be pollinating these plants and recent research has finally figured that out. It appears that the hidden flower has a friend in some local reptiles.

Lizard pollination is not unheard of ([1] & [2]), however, it is by no means a common pollination syndrome. This could have something to do with the fact that we haven’t been looking. Pollination studies are notoriously tricky. Just because something visits a flower does not mean its an effective pollinator. To investigate this properly, one needs ample hours of close observation and some manipulative experiments to get to the bottom of it. Before we get to that, however, its worth getting to know this strange plant in a little more detail.

The hidden flower is a member of an obscure family called Achariaceae. Though a few members have managed to catch our attention economically, most genera are poorly studied. The hidden flower itself appears to be adapted to high elevation environments, hence its compact growth form. By hugging the substrate, this little herb is able to avoid the punishing winds that characterize montane habitats. Plants are dioecious meaning individuals produce either male or female flowers, never both. The most interesting aspect of its flowers, however, are how inconspicuous they are.

The hidden flower ( Guthriea capensis )  in situ .

The hidden flower (Guthriea capensis) in situ.

Flowers are produced at the base of the plant, out of site from most organisms. They are small and mostly green in color except for the presence of a few bright orange glands near the base of the style, deep within the floral tube. What they lack in visibility, they make up for in nectar and smell. Each flower produced copious amounts of sticky, sugar-rich nectar. They are also scented. Taken together, these traits usually signal a pollination syndrome with tiny rodents but this assumption appears to be wrong.

Based on hours of video footage and a handful of clever experiments, a team of researchers from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the University of the Free State have been able to demonstrate that lizards, not mammals, birds, or insects are the main pollinators of this cryptic plant. Two species of lizard native to this region, Pseudocordylus melanotus and Tropidosaura gularis, were the main floral visitors over the duration of the study period.

Pseudocordylus melanotus

Pseudocordylus melanotus

Tropidosaura gularis

Tropidosaura gularis

Visiting lizards would spend time lapping up nectar from several flowers before moving off and in doing so, picked up lots of pollen in the process. Being covered in scales means that pollen can have a difficult time sticking to the face of a reptile but the researchers believe that this is where the sticky pollen comes into play. It is clear that the pollen adheres to the lizards’ face thanks to the fact that they are usually covered in sticky nectar. By examining repeated feeding attempts on different flowers, they also observed that not only do the lizards pick up plenty of pollen, they deposit it in just the right spot on the stigma for pollination to be successful. Insect visitors, on the other hand, were not as effective at proper pollen transfer.

Conspicuously absent from the visitation roster were rodents. The reason for this could lie in some of the compounds produced within the nectar. The team found high levels of a chemical called safranal, which is responsible for the smell of the flowers. Safranal is also bitter to the taste and it could very well serve as a deterrent to rodents and shrews. More work will be needed to confirm this hypothesis. Whatever the case, safranal does not seem to deter lizards and may even be the initial cue that lures them to the plant in the first place. Tongue flicking was observed in visiting lizards, which is often associated with finding food in other reptiles.

Male flower (a) and female flower (b). Note the presence of the orange glands at the base.

Male flower (a) and female flower (b). Note the presence of the orange glands at the base.

Another interesting observation is that the color of the floral tube and the orange glands within appear to match the colors of one of the lizard pollinators (Pseudocordylus subviridis ). Is it possible that this is further entices the lizards to visit the flowers? Other reptile pollination systems have demonstrated that lizards appear to respond well to color patterns for which they already have some sort of sensory bias. Is it possible that these flowers evolved in response to such a bias? Again, more work will be needed to say for sure.

By excluding vertebrates from visiting the flowers, the team was able to show that indeed lizards appear to be the main pollinators of these plants. Without pollen transfer, seed set is reduced by 95% wheres the additional exclusion of insects only reduced reproductive success by a further 4%. Taken together, it is clear that lizards are the main pollinators of the enigmatic hidden flower. This discovery expands on our limited knowledge of lizard pollination syndromes and rises many interesting questions about how such relationships evolve.

Photo Credit: [1] [2] [3]

Further Reading: [1] [2]

The Smallest Clematis

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At first glance, the marble clematis (Clematis marmoraria) looks more like an anemone than it does a clematis. You would be forgiven by most for the mistaken ID because it is one of only a handful of the roughly 300 described species that do not exhibit a vining growth form. Also, they hail from the same family - Ranunculaceae. The marble clematis is odd in that it lives its life as a compact “shrub” that hugs the rocks of its alpine habitat. And compact it is! The marble clematis is the smallest in the genus.

The marble clematis exhibits a very limited distribution. It can only be found growing wild in the alpine zone of two sites within Kahurangi National Park in New Zealand. It has only been known to science for a relatively short period of time, having been discovered in 1975. Subsequent investigations have been able to elucidate that its restricted to specific rocky substrates, mainly marble, hence both its common name and specific epithet were given to reflect that.

Like many members of the genus, the marble clematis is dioecious, meaning individual plants are either male or female. Flowering begins in December, as the southern hemisphere summer kicks into high gear. Being restricted to an alpine habitat means that this species has to pack growth and reproduction into only a few short weeks before nasty weather returns and buries it under snow. Despite its herbaceous appearance, the marble clematis is more accurately described as a sub-shrub as it attains a rather woody habit as it matures.

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Other than its size, the fact that it is not a vine may be the most striking feature of the marble clematis. It is likely that natural selection simply doesn’t favor vine-like growth in such rocky terrain. There really isn’t a whole lot of neighboring vegetation to climb on and compete with so why both with an ambling habit? Also, its alpine environment doesn’t lend well to tall growth. Anything that scrambles up and over rocks is likely to be damaged by wind, sun, and freezing temperatures. As such, the marble clematis is more at home tucked into nooks and crannies than it is vining all over the place.

Unfortunately, its small size, slow growth rate, and limited distribution seem to be working against the marble clematis in our human-dominated world. Not only does climate change threaten its alpine habitat, human activity coupled with grazing by introduced goats and deer have seen populations of this unique species decline at an alarming rate. In 2009 the marble clematis was afforded ‘threatened’ status and is now considered Nationally Vulnerable by the New Zealand government. However, there is a silver lining to all of this and it lies in the hands of alpine garden enthusiasts.

It turns out, the marble clematis is fairly easy to grow. Together with its compact form and showy flowers, it has gained a lot of popularity among horticulturists and gardeners that enjoy rock gardening. Plants can easily be started by seeds or cuttings and, provided some basic soil needs are met (plenty of drainage), potted individuals can live long, healthy lives. Having plants in cultivation like this means that the risk of complete extinction is greatly minimized. Of course, ex situ collections are not a substitute for habitat conservation but it certainly helps mitigate at least some of the risks facing species like the marble clematis.

Photo Credits: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3]

 

Meet Jones' Columbine

Meet Aquilegia jonesii. This interesting little columbine can be found growing in a narrow range along the northern Rockies. It only grows in alpine and sub-alpine zones, making it quite rare. It has a cushion-like growth form to shield it from the elements but disproportionately large flowers. It is a lucky day if one stumbles across this species! 

Fun Fact: Both the common name and generic name of the flowers referred to collectively as "columbines" have their origins in ornithology? 

That's right, the genus to which they belong, Aquilegia, can trace its origin to the word "aquila," which is Latin for "eagle." When the genus was being described, it was felt that the flower resembled the claw of an eagle. 

The word "columbine" has it's origins in the word "columba," which is Latin for "pigeon" or "dove." Early botanical enthusiasts felt that the nectar spurs resembled the heads of a group of doves. 

More and more I am coming on board with the idea that etymology can be quite fun.

Photo Credit: Steve (http://bit.ly/NbGbmz)

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3]

Ancient Green Blobs

Curious images of these strange green mounds make the rounds of social media every so often. What kind of alien life form is this? Is it a moss? Is it a fungus? The answer may surprise you!

In reality, this large mound is comprised of a colony of plants in the carrot family! Known scientifically as Azorella compacta, this species hails from the Andes and only grows between 3,200 and 4,500 metres in elevation. Its tightly compacted growth-form is an adaptation to this lifestyle, serving to prevent heat loss in such a cold and windy environment. Every so often, these mats erupt with tiny flowers, which must be a sight to behold!

The colonies expand at the rate of roughly 1.5 cm each year. Large colonies are estimated at over 3000 years old, making them some of the oldest living organisms on the planet! Sadly, the dense growth of the plant makes it highly sought after as a fuel source. Locals harvest the plant with pick axes and burn the dense mats for heat, not unlike peat from bogs. 

Because of its slow growth rate, harvesting this species has caused a serious decline in numbers. Local governments have since enacted laws to protect this species and some recovery has been documented though, with such slow growth rates, only time will tell if protection is enough. 

Photo Credits: [1] [2] 

Further Reading: [1]

High Elevation Record Breakers Are Evidence of Climate Change

A new record has been set for vascular plants. Three mustards, two composits, and a grass have been found growing at an elevation of 20,177 feet (6,150 m) above sea level!

Mountains are a brutal place to live. Freezing temperatures, fierce winds, limited soil, and punishing UV radiation are serious hurdles for any form of life. Whereas algae and mosses can often eke out an existence at such altitudes, more derived forms of life have largely been excluded from such habitats. That is, until now. The area in which these plants were discovered measured about the size of a football field and is situated atop an Indian mountain known as Mount Shukule II.

Although stressed, these plants were nonetheless established among the scree of this menacing peak. Most were quite young, having only been there for a few seasons but growth rings on the roots of at least one plant indicated that it had been growing there for nearly 20 years!

All of them have taken the cushion-like growth habit of most high elevation plant species in order to reduce exposure and conserve water. The leaves of each species also contained high levels of sugary anti-freeze, a must in this bitter cold habitat.

The research team, who could only muster a few hours of work each day, believed that the seeds of these plants were blown up there by wind. Because soils in alpine zones are often non-existent, the team wanted to take a closer look at what kind of microbial community, if any, was associated with their roots.

Whereas no mycorrhizal species were identified, the team did find a complex community of bacteria living among the roots that are characteristic of species living in arid, desert-like regions. It is likely that these bacteria came in with the seeds. Aside from wind, sun, and a lack of soil, one of the other great challenges for these plants is a short growing season. In order to persist at this elevation, the plants require a minimum of 40 days of frost-free soil each year.

Because climate change is happening much faster in mountainous regions, it is likely that such favorable growing conditions are a relatively recent phenomenon. The area in question has only recently become deglaciated. As average yearly temperatures continue to increase, the habitable zone for plants such as these is also moving up the mountain. The question is, what happens when it reaches the top? Once at the peak, plants have nowhere to go. One of the greatest issues alpine plants face is that they will gradually be squeezed off of these habitat islands.

Although expanding habitable zones in these mountains may sound like a good thing, it is likely a short term benefit for most species. Whereas temperature bands in the Tibetan mountains are moving upwards at a rate of 20 feet (6 m) per year, most alpine plants can only track favorable climates at a rate of about 2 inches (0.06 m) per year. In other words, they simply can't keep up. As such, this record breaking discovery is somewhat bitter sweet.

Photo Credit: [1]

Further Reading: [1]

Staying Warm: An Alpine Plant Approach to Reproduction

Things are beginning to cool down throughout the northern hemisphere. As winter approaches, most plant species begin to enter their dormancy period. Very few plants risk wasting their reproductive efforts in the chill of late fall, having gotten most of it out of the way during the warm summer months. This is easy enough for low elevation (and low latitude) plants but what about species living in the high arctic or alpine habitats. Such habitats are faced with cold, harsh conditions year round. How do plants living in these zones deal with reproduction?

These limitations are overcome via physiology. For starters, plants living in such extreme habitats often self pollinate. Insects and other pollinators are too few and far between to rely solely upon them as a means of reproduction. Also, the flowers of most cold weather plants are heliocentric. This means that, as the sun moves across the sky, the flowers track its path so that they are constantly perpendicular to its rays. This maintains maximum exposure to this precious heat source. 

Additionally, many arctic and alpine plants have parabolically shaped flowers. This amplifies the incoming radiation being absorbed by the flower. Experiments have shown that flowers that have been shaded from the heat of the sun had a dismal seed set of only 8% whereas plants exposed to the sun had an elevated seed set of 60%. 

For plants in these habitats, its all about persistence. Low reproductive rates are often offset by extremes in longevity. This is one of the many reasons why hikers must remember to tread lightly in these habitats. Damages incurred by even a single careless hiker can take decades, if not centuries, to recover. 

Photo Credit: [1]

Further Reading: [1]

Snowdrops

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Few plants in temperate horticulture signal the end of winter better than snowdrops. Come February in the northern hemisphere, these herbaceous bulbs begin popping up, often through a layer of snow. They refuse to be beaten back by freak snow storms and deep frosts. 

Snowdrops are native to a wide swath of the European continent. Like many spring ephemerals, they love moist, rich forests and will often escape into the surrounding environment. Taxonomically speaking, there are something like 20 species currently recognized. From what I can tell, this number has and continues to fluctuate each time someone takes a fresh crack at the group. What is certain is that the original distributions of many species have been clouded by a long history of associating with humans. For instance, whereas Galanthus nivalis is frequently thought of as being native to the UK, records show that it was only first introduced in 1770. 

Because we find them so endearing, snowdrops have become commonplace in temperate areas around the world. Reproduction for most of the garden escapees occurs mainly by division of their bulbs. As such, most plants you see in gardens and parks are clones. Pollination in snowdrops is frequently quite poor. This has been attributed to the lack of pollinating insects out and about during the cold months in which snowdrops flower. Bumblebees are some of the few insects up early enough to take advantage of their white blooms and, when seed set does occur, the plants rely on ants as their main seed dispersers. 

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Contrary to their ubiquitous presence around the globe, the IUCN lists some snowdrop species as near threatened in their home range. The genus Galanthus contains some of the most heavily collected and traded wild bulbs in the world. Pressure from the horticultural trade coupled with habitat destruction and climate change may push some species to the brink of extirpation throughout Europe in the not-so-distance future. 

Photo Credit: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4]

http://www.arkive.org/snowdrop/galanthus-nivalis/

The Rosulate Violas

The rosulate violas of South America are amazing. Adapted to the harsh, windy environment provided by the mountains of Chile and Patagonia, these little plants are as tough as they are beautiful!

Photo Credit: Dick Culbert (http://bit.ly/1iv5WXr), Omskflower.ru, The Ecological and Environmental Change Research Group (http://bit.ly/1nlbknN), Christian Ostrosky (http://bit.ly/1jEslX7), Pato Novoa (http://bit.ly/SDQoMi , http://bit.ly/1jjT1Nh)

Noble Rhubarb

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The Himalayas. If there was ever a natural wonder worthy of the title "epic" it would certainly be these towering peaks. Home to some of the tallest points on our planet, these ragged peaks are best known for the near insurmountable challenges faced by adventurers from all around the world. Considering their elevation, it would seem that permanent life simply isn't possible on these mountains. However, this could not be further from the truth. Among sprawling shrubs and diminutive herbs towers one of the most peculiar plants known to the world. To make things more interesting, it is a relative of rhubarb, a denizen of gardens and pies throughout much more hospitable climates. 

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Meet the noble rhubarb, Rheum nobile. Growing at elevations between 13,000 and 15,000 feet (4000–4800 m), this species is quite deserving of its noble status. Plants growing at such elevations face some serious challenges. Temperatures regularly drop well below freezing and there is no shortage of damaging UV radiation. As with most alpine zones, a majority of plants cope with these conditions by growing prostrate over the ground and taking what little refuge they can find behind rocks. Not Rheum nobile. This member of the buckwheat family can grow to heights of 6 feet, making it easily the tallest plant around for miles. 

The most striking feature of this plant is the large spire of translucent bracts. These modified leaves contain no chlorophyll and thus do not serve as centers for photosynthesis. Instead, these structures are there to protect and warm the plant. Tucked behind the bracts are the flowers. If they were to be exposed to the elements, they would either freeze or be fried by UV radiation. Instead, these ghostly bracts contain specialized pigments that filter out damaging UV wavelengths while at the same time creating a favorable microclimate for the flowers and seeds to develop. In essence, the plant grows its own greenhouse.

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As a result, temperatures within the plant can be as much as 10 degrees warmer than the ambient temperatures outside. At such elevations, this is a real boost to its reproductive efforts. Even more of a challenge is the fact that at this elevation, pollinators are often in short supply. Plants have to do what they can to get their attention. Not only does Rheum nobile offer a visual cue that is in stark contrast to its bleak surroundings, it also goes about attracting pollinators chemically as well.

Rheum nobile has struck up a mutualistic relationship with fungus gnats living at these altitudes. The plant produces a single chemical compound that attracts the female fungus gnats. The females lay their eggs in the developing seeds of the plant but, in return, pollinate far more flowers than they can parasitize. These organisms have managed to strike a balance in these mountains. In return for pollination, the fungus gnats have a warm place to raise their young that is sheltered from the damaging UV radiation outside. 

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]