How a Giant Parasitic Orchid Makes a Living

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Imagine a giant vine with no leaves and no chlorophyll scrambling over decaying wood and branches of a warm tropical forest. As remarkable as that may seem, that is exactly what Erythrorchis altissima is. With stems that can grow to upwards of 10 meters in length, this bizarre orchid from tropical Asia is the largest mycoheterotrophic plant known to science.

Mycoheterotrophs are plants that obtain all of their energy needs by parasitizing fungi. As you can probably imagine, this is an extremely indirect way for a plant to make a living. In most instances, this means the parasitic plants are stealing nutrients from the fungi that were obtained via a partnership with photosynthetic plants in the area. In other words, mycoheterotrophic plants are indirectly stealing from photosynthetic plants.

In the case of E. altissima, this begs the question of where does all of the carbon needed to build a surprising amount of plant come from? Is it parasitizing the mycorrhizal network associated with its photosynthetic neighbors or is it up to something else? These are exactly the sorts of questions a team from Saga University in Japan wanted to answer.

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All orchids require fungal partners for germination and survival. That is one of the main reasons why orchids can be so finicky about where they will grow. Without the fungi, especially in the early years of growth, you simply don't have orchids. The first step in figuring out how this massive parasitic orchid makes its living was to identify what types of fungi it partners with. To do this, the team took root samples and isolated the fungi living within.

By looking at their DNA, the team was able to identify 37 unique fungal taxa associated with this species. Most surprising was that a majority of those fungi were not considered mycorrhizal (though at least one mycorrhizal species was identified). Instead, the vast majority of the fungi associated with with this orchid are involved in wood decay.

Stems climbing on fallen dead wood (a) or on standing living trees (b). A thick and densely branched root clump (c) and thin and elongate roots (d) [Source]

Stems climbing on fallen dead wood (a) or on standing living trees (b). A thick and densely branched root clump (c) and thin and elongate roots (d) [Source]

To ensure that these wood decay fungi weren't simply partnering with adult plants, the team decided to test whether or not the wood decay fungi were able to induce germination of E. altissima seeds. In vitro germination trials revealed that not only do these fungi induce seed germination in this orchid, they also fuel the early growth stages of the plant. Further tests also revealed that all of the carbon and nitrogen needs of E. altissima are met by these wood decay fungi.

These results are amazing. It shows that the largest mycoheterotrophic plant we know of lives entirely off of a generalized group of fungi responsible for the breakdown of wood. By parasitizing these fungi, the orchid has gained access to one of the largest pools of carbon (and other nutrients) without having to give anything back in return. It is no wonder then that this orchid is able to reach such epic proportions without having to do any photosynthesizing of its own. What an incredible world we live in!

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Photo Credits: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1]

Rein In Those Seeds

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Plants living on islands face a bit of a conundrum. In order to get to said islands, the ancestors of those plants had to exhibit extreme seed or spore dispersal strategies. However, if plants are to persist after arriving to an island, long-distance dispersal becomes rather risky. In the case of oceanic islands, seeds or spores that travel too far end up in the water. As such, we often observe an evolutionary reduction in dispersal ability for island residents. 

Islands, however, are not always surrounded by water. You can have "islands" on land as well. The easiest example for most to picture would be the alpine zone of a mountain. Species adapted to these high-elevation habitats find it hard to compete with species native to low-elevation habitats and are therefore stuck on these "islands in the sky." Less obvious are islands created by a specific soil type. 

Take, for instance, gypseous soils. Such soils are the result of large amounts of gypsum deposits at or near the soil surface. Gypseous soils are found in large quantities throughout parts of western North America, North and South Africa, western Asia, Australia, and eastern Spain. They are largely the result of a massive climatic shift that occurred during the Eocene, some 50 million years ago. 

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Massive mountain building events during that time were causing a large reductions in atmospheric CO2 concentrations. The removal of this greenhouse gas via chemical weathering caused a gradual decline in average temperatures around the world. Earth was also becoming a much drier place and throughout the areas mentioned above, hyper-saline lakes began to dry up. As they did, copious amount of minerals, including gypsum, were left behind. 

These mineral-rich soils differ from the surrounding soils in that they contain a lot of salts. Salt makes life incredibly difficult for most terrestrial plants. Life finds a way, however, and a handful of plant species inevitably adapted to these mineral-rich soils, becoming specialists in the process. They are so specialized on these types of soils that they simply cannot compete with other plant species when growing in more "normal" soils. 

Essentially, these gypseous soils function like soil or edaphic islands. Plants specialized in growing there really don't have the option to disperse far and wide. They have to rein it in or risk extirpation. For a group of plants growing in gypseous soils in western North America, this equates to changes in seed morphology. 

Mentzelia is a genus of flowering plants in the family Loasaceae. There are somewhere around 60 to 70 different species, ranging from annuals to perennials, and forbs to shrubs (they are often referred to as blazing stars but since that would lead to too much confusion with Liatris, I will continue to refer to them as Mentzelia).

For most species in this genus, seed dispersal is accomplished by wind. Plants growing on "normal" soils produce seeds with a distinct wing surrounding the seed. A decent breeze will dislodge them from their capsule, causing them blow around. With any luck some of those seeds will land in a suitable spot fer germination, far from their parents. Such is not the case for all Mentzelia though. When researchers took a closer look at species that have specialized on gypseous soils, they found something quite intriguing. 

Mentzelia  phylogeny showing reduction in seed wings.

Mentzelia phylogeny showing reduction in seed wings.

The wings surrounding the seeds of gypseous Mentzelia were either extremely reduced in size or had disappeared altogether. Just as it makes no sense for a plant living on an oceanic island to disperse its seeds far out into the ocean, it too makes no sense for gypseous Mentzelia to disperse their seeds into soils in which they cannot compete. It is thought that limited dispersal may help reinforce the types of habitat specialization that we see in species like these Mentzelia. The next question that must be answered is whether or not such specialization and limited dispersal comes at the cost of genetic diversity. More work will be needed to understand such dynamics. 

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4]

Further Reading: [1] [2]

 

Hydatellaceae: The Other Basal Angiosperms

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Though rather obscure to most of the world, the genus Trithuria has enjoyed somewhat of a celebrity status in recent years. A paper published in 2007 lifted this tiny group of minuscule aquatic plants out of their spot in Poales and granted them a place among the basal angiosperm lineage Nymphaeales. This was a huge move for such little plants. 

The genus Trithuria contains 12 species, the majority of which reside in Australia, however, two species, T. inconspicua and T. konkanensis, are native to New Zealand and India. They are all aquatic herbs and their diminutive size and inconspicuous appearance make them easy to miss. For quite some time these odd plants were considered to be a group of highly reduced monocots. Their original placement was in the family Centrolepidaceae. All of that changed in 2007.

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Close inspection of Trithuria DNA told a much different story. These were not highly reduced monocots after all. Instead, multiple analyses revealed that Trithuria were actually members of the basal angiosperm lineage Nymphaeales. Together with the water lilies (Nymphaeaceae) and the fanworts (Cabombaceae), these plants are living representatives of some of the early days in flowering plant evolution. 

Of course, DNA analysis cannot stand on its own. The results of the new phylogeny had to be corroborated with anatomical evidence. Indeed, closer inspection of the anatomy of Trithuria revealed that these plants are truly distinct from members of Poales based on a series of features including furrowed pollen grains, inverted ovules, and abundant starchy seed storage tissues. Taken together, all of these lines of evidence warranted the construction of a new family - Hydatellaceae.

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The 12 species of Trithuria are rather similar in their habits. Many live a largely submerged aquatic lifestyle in shallow estuarine habitats. As you may have guessed, individual plants look like tiny grass-like rosettes. Their small flower size has lent to some of their taxonomic confusion over the years. What was once thought of as individual flowers were revealed to be clusters or heads of highly reduced individual flowers. 

Reproduction for these plants seems like a tricky affair. Some have speculated that water plays a role but close inspections of at least one species revealed that very little pollen transfer takes place in this way. Wind is probably the most common way in which pollen from one plant finds its way to another, however, the reduced size of these flowers and their annual nature means there isn't much time and pollen to go around. It is likely that most of the 12 species of Trithuria are self-pollinated. This is probably quite useful considering the unpredictable nature of their aquatic habitats. It doesn't take much for these tiny aquatic herbs to establish new populations. In total, Trithuria stands as living proof that big things often come in small packages. 

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

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

 

Meet The Ghostworts

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I love parasitic plants and I love liverworts. Imagine my excitement then when I learned that there are at least two species of parasitic liverworts! These bizarre little plants are currently the only parasitic non-vascular plants known to science. 

The first description of a ghostwort dates back to 1919. Although no description of habitat was given, the account describes a set of liverwort thalli containing no chlorophyll and whose cells were full of mycorrhizal fungi. They were assigned to the genus Aneura and that was that. Further descriptions of this plant would not be made for more than a decade.

A ghostwort gametophyte with spike-like sporophytes.

A ghostwort gametophyte with spike-like sporophytes.

Proper attention was not given to this group until the 1930's. More plants started turning up among the humus and mosses of forests and wetlands throughout Finland, Sweden, and Scotland. A more thorough workover of specimens was made and the plants were moved into their own genus, Cryptothallus, which accurately captured their subterranean habit. They were given the name Cryptothallus mirabilis.

Another species of Cryptothallus was discovered in Costa Rica in 1977. It was named Cryptothallus hirsutus. Only one other collection of these species was made and it remains the lesser known of the two species. It is interesting to note the disparity between their ranges, with C. mirabilis inhabiting northern portions of Europe, and C. hirsutus only known from those two collections in Central America. Regardless, these odd liverworts have received a bit more attention in recent years.

It seems that the ghostworts manage to capture the attention of anyone who looks hard enough. For instance, a handful of attempts have been made to cultivate ghostworts in a controlled lab setting. Originally, plants were grown exposed to varying levels of light but try as the may, researchers were never able to coax the plants into producing chlorophyll. It would appear that these tiny liverworts are in fact some sort of parasite.

Spike-like sporophytes with a branching gametophyte. 

Spike-like sporophytes with a branching gametophyte. 

Proper evidence of their parasitic lifestyle was finally demonstrated 2003. Researchers were able to grow C. mirabilis in specialized observation chambers in order to understand what is going on under the soil. As it turns out, those numerous mycorrhizal connections mentioned in the original description are the key to survival for the ghostworts. The team showed that the ghostwort tricks fungi in the genus Tulasnella into forming mycorrhizal connections with its cells. These fungi also happen to be hooked up to a vast network of pine and birch tree roots.

By tricking the fungi, into an association, the ghostworts are able to steal carbohydrates that the fungi gain from the surrounding trees. Like all mycoheterotrophs, the ghostworts are essentially indirect parasites of photosynthetic plants. Their small size and relative rarity on the landscape likely helps these plants go unnoticed by the fungi but much more work needs to be done to better understand such dynamics.

Ghostworts look more like fungi than plants.

Ghostworts look more like fungi than plants.

In 2008, phylogenetic attention was paid to the ghostworts in order to better understand where they fit on the liverwort branch of the tree. As it turns out, Cryptothallus appears to be nestled quite comfortably within the genus Aneura. Because of this, the authors suggest disposing of the genus Cryptothallus altogether. Outside of simply placing this species back in its originally described genus, it affiliation with Aneura is quite interesting from an evolutionary standpoint.

Other liverworts in the genus Aneura are also known to form mycorrhizal relationships with Tulasnella. Unlike the ghostworts, however, these liverworts are fully capable of photosynthesis. Because these intimate fungal relationships were already in place before the ghostworts began evolving towards a fully parasitic lifestyle, it suggests that the saprophytic nature of Tulasnella fungi may have actually facilitated this jump. 

The cryptic nature of the ghostworts has left many a botanist wanting. Their subterranean habit makes them incredibly hard to find. Who knows what secrets this group still holds. Future discoveries could very well add more species to the mix or, at the very least, greatly expand the known range of the other two.

Photo Credits: Brian Eversham [1] [2] [3] [4]

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

 

On the Ecology of Krameria

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There is something satisfying about saying "Krameria." Whereas so many scientific names act as tongue twisters, Krameria rolls of the tongue with a satisfying confidence. What's more, the 18 or so species within this genus are fascinating plants whose lifestyles are as exciting as their overall appearance. Today I would like to give you an overview of these unique parasitic plants.

Commonly known as rhatany, these plants belong to the family Krameriaceae. This is a monotypic clade, containing only the genus Krameria. Historically there has been a bit of confusion as to where these plants fit on the tree of life. Throughout the years, Krameria has been placed in families like Fabaceae and Polygalaceae, however, more recent genetic work suggests it to be unique enough to warrant a family status of its own. 

Regardless of its taxonomic affiliation, Krameria is a wonderfully specialized genus of plants with plenty of offer the biologically curious among us. All 18 species are shrubby, though at least a couple species can sometimes barely qualify as such. They are a New World taxon with species growing native as far south as Paraguay and Chile and as far north as Kansas and Colorado. They generally inhabit dry habitats.

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As I briefly mentioned above, most if not all of the 18 species are parasitic in nature. They are what we call "hemiparasites" in that despite stealing from their hosts, they are nonetheless fully capable of photosynthesis. It is interesting to note that no one has yet been able to raise these plants in captivity without a host. It would seem that despite being able to photosynthesize, these plants are rather specialized parasites. 

That is not to say that they have evolved to live off of a specific host. Far from it actually. A wide array of potential hosts, ranging from annuals to perennials, have been identified. What I find most remarkable about their parasitic lifestyle is the undeniable advantage it gives these shrubs in hot, dry environments. Research has found that despite getting a slow start on growing in spring, the various Krameria species are capable of performing photosynthesis during extremely stressful periods and for a much longer duration than the surrounding vegetation. 

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The reason for this has everything to do with their parasitic lifestyle. Instead of producing a long taproot to reach water reserves deep in the soil, these shrubs invest in a dense layer of lateral roots that spread out in the uppermost layers of soil seeking unsuspecting hosts. When these roots find a plant worth parasitizing, they grow around its roots and begin taking up water and nutrients from them. By doing this, Krameria are no longer limited by what water or other resources their roots can find. Instead, they have managed to tap into large reserves that would otherwise be locked away inside the tissues of their neighbors. As such, the Krameria do not have to worry about water stress in the same way that non-parasitic plants do. 

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By far the most stunning feature of the genus Krameria are the flowers. Looking at them it is no wonder why they have been associated with legumes and milkworts. They are beautiful and complex structures with a rather specific pollination syndrome. Krameria flowers produce no nectar to speak of. Instead, they have evolved alongside a group of oil-collecting bees in the genus Centris.

One distinguishing feature of Krameria flowers are a pair of waxy glands situated on each side of the ovary. These glands produce oils that female Centris bees require for reproduction. Though Centris bees are not specialized on Krameria flowers, they nonetheless visit them in high numbers. Females alight on the lip and begin scraping off oils from the glands. As they do this, they inevitably come into contact with the stamens and pistil. The female bees don't feed on these oils. Instead, they combine it with pollen and nectar from other plant species into nutrient-rich food packets that they feed to their developing larvae.  

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Following fertilization, seeds mature inside of spiny capsules. These capsules vary quite a bit in form and are quite useful in species identification. Each spine is usually tipped in backward-facing barbs, making them excellent hitchhikers on the fur and feathers of any animal that comes into contact with them.  

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

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

A Surprising Realization About Leaf Windows

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I will never forget the first time I laid eyes on a Lithops. These odd little succulents are truly marvels of evolution. The so-called "living stones" really do earn their name as most are exquisitely camouflaged to match the gravelly soils in which they grow. If bizarre color patterns weren't enough, Lithops, as well as many other succulents, live their lives almost completely buried under the soil. All one ever really sees is the very tip of their succulent leaves and the occasional flower.

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It is the tips of those leaves that make people swoon. Lithops belong to a hodgepodge mix of succulent genera and families that produce windowed leaves. Aside from their striking patterns, the tips of their leaves are made up of layers of translucent cells, which allow light to penetrate into the interior of the leaf where the actual photosynthetic machinery is housed. Their semi-translucent leaves, coupled with their nearly subterranean habit, have led to the assumption that the leaf windows allow the plants to continue photosynthesis all the while being mostly buried. Despite the popularity of this assumption, few tests had been performed to see whether or not the windows function as we think. All of that changed back in the year 2000.

As hinted at above, a variety of succulent plants have converged on a similar leaf morphology. This is where things get a bit strange. Not all plants that exhibit the leaf window trait find themselves buried in the soil. Others, such as Peperomia graveolens for example, produce the photosynthetic tissues well above the soil. Examples like this led at least some researchers to second guess the common assumption of windows increasing photosynthesis and the resulting investigations were surprising to say the least. 

Peperomia graveolens

Peperomia graveolens

A duo of researchers decided to test the assumption that leaf windows increase photosynthesis by channeling light directly to the photosynthetic machinery inside. The researchers used tape to cover the leaf windows of a variety of succulent plant species. When they compared photosynthetic rates between the two groups, not a single difference was detected. Plants who had their leaves covered photosynthesized the same amount as plants with uncovered leaves. These data were quite shocking. Because they tested this assumption across a variety of plant species, the results suggested that the function of windowed leaves isn't as straight forward as we thought. These findings raised more questions than they solved.

Subsequent experiments only served to reinforce the original findings. What's more, some even showed that plants with covered windows actually photosynthesized more than plants with uncovered windows. It seems that windowed leaves function in a completely opposite manner than the popular assumption. The key to this patterns may lie in heat exchange. When the researchers took the temperature of the interior of the leaves in each group, they found that internal leaf temperatures were significantly higher in the uncovered group and this has important implications for photosynthesis for these species.

Fenestraria rhopalophylla

Fenestraria rhopalophylla

High leaf temperatures can be extremely damaging to photosynthetic proteins. If too much light filters through, leaf temperatures can actually hit damaging levels. This is one reason that many of these plant species have adopted this bizarre semi-subterranean habit. Plants that experienced such high temperatures throughout the course of a day had permanent damage done to their photosystems. This led to a reduction of fitness over time. Such lethal temperature spikes did not happen to leaves that had been covered.

Haworthia truncata

Haworthia truncata

If you're anything like me, at this point you must be questioning the role of the leaf windows entirely. Why would they be there if they may actually hurt the plants in the long run? Well, this is where knowing something about the habitat of each species comes into play. Not all leaf windows are created equal. The patterns of their windows vary quite a bit depending on where the plants evolved. In 2012, a paper was published that looked at the patterns of Lithops leaf windows in relation to their place of origin. Not all Lithops grow in the same conditions and various species hail from regions with vastly different climates.

What the paper was able to demonstrate was that Lithops native to regions that experience more acerage annual rainfall have much larger window areas on their leaves than Lithops native to drier regions. Again, the underpinnings of this discovery nonetheless have to do with light availability. Wetter areas experience more cloud cover than drier areas so Lithops growing where its cloudy have to cope with a lot less sun than their more xeric-growing cousins. As such, having a larger window allows more diffuse light into the leaf for photosynthesis without having to worry about the damaging temperatures.

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The reverse is true for Lithops from drier climates. They have smaller leaf windows because they experience more days with direct sun. These species tended to have much smaller windows, which reduced the amount of sunlight entering the leaf. This serves to keep internal leaf temperatures within a much safer range, thus protecting the delicate proteins inside. As it turns out, leaf windows seem to represent a trade-off between photosynthesis and overheating. What's more, some window-leaved species seem to be evolving away from the light transmitting function of their cousins living in shadier conditions. If anything, this serves as a reminder that simply because something seems obvious, that doesn't mean its always true. Stay curious, my friends!

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6]

The Extraordinary Catasetum Orchids

Male  Catasetum osculatum

Male Catasetum osculatum

Orchids, in general, have perfect flowers in that they contain both male and female organs. However, in a family this large, exceptions to the rules are always around the corner. Take, for instance, orchids in the genus Catasetum. With something like 166 described species, this genus is rather unique in that individual plants produce either male or female flowers. What's more, the floral morphology of the individual sexes are so distinctly different from one another that some were originally described as distinct species. 

Female  Catasetum osculatum

Female Catasetum osculatum

In fact, it was Charles Darwin himself that first worked out that plants of the different sexes were indeed the same species. The genus Catasetum enthralled Darwin and he was able to procure many specimens from his friends for study. Resolving the distinct floral morphology wasn't his only contribution to our understanding of these orchids, he also described their rather unique pollination mechanism. The details of this process are so bizarre that Darwin was actually ridiculed by some scientists of the time. Yet again, Darwin was right. 

Catasetum longifolium

Catasetum longifolium

If having individual male and female plants wasn't strange enough for these orchids, the mechanism by which pollination is achieved is quite explosive... literally. The Catasetum orchids are pollinated by large Euglossine bees. Attracted to the male flowers by their alluring scent, the bees land on the lip and begin to probe the flower. Above the lip sits two hair-like structures. When a bee contacts these hairs, a structure containing sacs of pollen called a pollinia is launched downwards towards the bee. A sticky pad at the base ensures that once it hits the bee, it sticks tight. 

Male Catasetum flower in action. Taken from BBC's Kingdom of Plants.

Male Catasetum flower in action. Taken from BBC's Kingdom of Plants.

Bees soon learn that the male flowers are rather unpleasant places to visit so they set off in search of a meal that doesn't pummel them. This is quite possibly why the flowers of the individual sexes look so different from one another. As the bees visit the female flowers, the pollen sacs on their back slip into a perfect groove and thus pollination is achieved. 

Eulaema polychroma  visiting  Catasetum integerrimum

Eulaema polychroma visiting Catasetum integerrimum

The uniqueness of this reproductive strategy has earned the Catasetum orchids a place in the spotlight among botanists and horticulturists alike. It begs the question, how is sex determined in these orchids? Is it genetic or are there certain environmental factors that push the plant in either direction? As it turns out, light availability may be one of the most important cues for sex determination in Catasetum

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A paper published back in 1991 found that there were interesting patterns of sex ratios for at least one species of Catasetum. Female plants were found more often in younger forests whereas the ratios approached an even 1:1 in older forests. What the researchers found was that plants are more likely to produce female flowers under open canopies and male flowers under closed canopies. In this instance, younger forests are more open than older, more mature forests, which may explain the patterns they found in the wild. It is possible that, because seed production is such a costly endeavor for plants, individuals with access to more light are better suited for female status. 

Catasetum macrocarpum

Catasetum macrocarpum

Aside from their odd reproductive habits, the ecology of these plants is also quite fascinating. Found throughout the New World tropics, Catasetum orchids live as epiphytes on the limbs and trunks of trees. Living in the canopy like this can be quite stressful and these orchids have evolved accordingly. For starters, they are deciduous. Most of the habitats in which they occur experience a dry season. As the rains fade, the plants will drop their leaves, leaving behind a dense cluster of green pseudobulbs. These bulbous structures serve as energy and water stores that will fuel growth as soon as the rains return. 

Catasetum silvestre in situ

Catasetum silvestre in situ

The canopy can also be low in vital nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. As is true for all orchids, Catasetum rely on an intimate partnership with special mychorrizal fungi to supplement these ingredients. Such partnerships are vital for germination and growth. However, the fungi that they partner with feed on dead wood, which is low in nitrogen. This has led to yet another intricate and highly specialized relationship for at least some members of this orchid genus. 

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Mature Catasetum are often found growing right out of arboreal ant nests. Those that aren't will often house entire ant colonies inside their hollowed out pseudobulbs. This will sometimes even happen in a greenhouse setting, much to the chagrin of many orchid growers. This partnership with ants is twofold. In setting up shop within the orchid or around its roots, the ants provide the plant with a vital source of nitrogen in the form of feces and other waste products. At the same time, the ants will viciously attack anything that may threaten their nest. In doing so, they keep many potential herbivores at bay.  

Female  Catasetum planiceps

Female Catasetum planiceps

To look upon a flowering Catasetum is quite remarkable. They truly are marvels of evolution and living proof that there seems to be no end to what orchids have done in the name of survival. Luckily for most of us, one doesn't have to travel to the jungles and scale a tree just to see one of these orchids up close. Their success in the horticultural trade means that most botanical gardens sport at least a species or two. If and when you do encounter a Catasetum, do yourself a favor and take time to admire it in all of its glory. You will be happy that you did. 

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] 

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

The Incredible Feat of a Resurrection Plant

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It is understandable why one would look at the crispy brown bundle of a Selaginella lepidophylla and think that it was dead. No wonder then why this hardy spikemoss has become such a novelty item for those looking for a unique gift. Indeed, even the common name of "resurrection plant" suggests that this species miraculously returns from the dead with the simple addition of water. A dormant resurrection plant is far from dead, however. It is in a state of dormancy that we are still struggling to understand.

Selaginella lepidophylla is native to the Chihuahuan desert, spanning the border between the US and Mexico. This is a harsh habitat for most plants, let alone a Lycophyte. However, this lineage has not survived hundreds of millions of years by being overly sensitive to environmental change and S. lepidophylla is a wonderful reminder of that.

As you can probably imagine, tolerating near-complete desiccation can be pretty beneficial when your habitat receives an average of only 235 mm (9.3 in) of rain each year. A plant can either store water for those lean times or go dormant until the rains return. The latter is exactly what S. lepidophylla does. As its water supply dwindles, the whole body of the plant curls up into a tight ball and waits. No roots anchor it to the ground. It is at the mercy of the winds as it blows around like a tiny tumbleweed until it winds up wedged into a crack or crevice.

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When the rains return, S. lepidophylla needs to be ready. Wet this crispy bundle and watch as over the course of about a day, the dormant ball unfurls to reveal the stunning body of a photosynthetic spikemoss ready to take advantage of moist conditions. Such conditions are short lived, of course, so after a few days drying out, the plant shrivels up and returns to its dormant, ball-like state. How does the plant manage to do this? Why doesn't it simply die? The answer to these questions has been the subject of quite a bit of debate and investigation. 

What we do know is that part of its success has to do with curling up into a ball. Without water in its tissues, its sensitive photosynthetic machinery would easily become damaged by punishing UV rays. By curling up, the plant essentially shelters these tissues from the sun. Indeed, plants that were kept from curling up experienced irreversible damage to their photo systems and were not as healthy as plants that did curl up. To this, the plant owes its success to rather flexible cell walls. Unlike other plants that snap when folded, the cells of S. lepidophylla are able to fold and unfold without any major structural damage.

As far as metabolism and chemistry is concerned, however, we are still trying to figure out how S. lepidophylla survives such drastic shifts. For a while it was thought that, similar to other organisms that undergo such dramatic desiccation, the plant relies on a special sugar called trehalose. Trehalose is known to bind to important proteins and membranes in other desiccation-tolerant organisms, thus protecting them from damage and allowing them to quickly return to their normal function as soon as water returns.

An analysis of non-desiccating Selaginella species, however, showed that S. lepidophylla doesn't produce a lot of trehalose. Though it is certainly present in its tissues, more wet-loving species of Selaginella contain much higher amounts of this sugar. Instead, it has been found that other sugars may actually be playing a bigger role in protecting the inner workings of this plant. Sorbitol and xylitol are found in much higher concentrations within the tissues of S. lepidophylla, suggesting that they may be playing a bigger role than we ever realized. More work is needed to say for sure.

Finally, it would appear that S. lepidophylla is able to maintain enzyme activities within its cells at much higher levels during desiccation periods than was initially thought possible. When dried, some enzymes were found to be working at upwards of 75% efficiency of those found in hydrated tissues. This is really important for a plant that needs to respond quickly to take advantage of fleeting conditions. Along with quick production of new enzymes, this "idling" of enzymatic activity during dormancy is thought to not only protect the plant from too much respiration, but also allows it to hit the ground running as soon as favorable conditions return. 

Despite our lack of understanding of the process, it is amazing to watch this resurrection plant in action. To see something go from a death-like state to a living, photosynthetic organism over the course of a day is truly a marvel worth enjoying.

Photo Credits: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1]

Resin Midges, Basal Angiosperms, and a Strange Pollination Syndrome

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When we try to talk about clades that are "basal" or "sister" to large taxonomic groups, your average listener either consciously or unconsciously thinks "primitive." Primitive has connotations of something that under-developed or unfinished. This is simply not the case. Take, for instance, a family of basal angiosperms called Schisandraceae.

This family is nestled within the order Austrobaileyales, which, along with a small handful of other families, represent the earliest branches of the angiosperm family tree still alive today.  To call them primitive, however, would be a serious misnomer. Because they diverged so early on, these lineages represent serious success stories in flowering plant evolution, having survived for hundreds of millions of years. Instead, we must think of them as fruitful early experiments in angiosperm evolution.

Floral morphology of and interaction between midge and their larvae (white arrows) in Illicium dunnianum

Still, the proverbial proof is in the pudding and if there was any sort of physical evidence one could put forth to remove our hierarchical prejudices about the taxonomic position of these plants, it would have to be their bizarrely specific pollination syndromes.  Members of the family Schisandraceae have entered into intense relationships with a group of flies known as midges and their interactions are anything but primitive. 

We will start with two species of plant native throughout parts of Asia. Meet as Illicium dunnianum and Illicium tsangii. More will be familiar with this genus than they may realize as Illicium gives us the dreaded star anise flavor our grandparents liked to sneak into our cookies as kids (but I digress). These particular species, however, have more to offer the world than flavoring. They are also very important plants for a group of gall midges in the genus Clinodiplosis.

The midges cannot reproduce without I. dunnianum or I. tsangii. You see, these midges lay their eggs within the flowers of these plants and, in doing so, end up pollinating them in the process. At first glance it may seem like a very one-sided relationship. Female midges deposit their eggs all along the carpels packed away inside large, fleshy whorl of tepals. As the midges crawl all over the reproductive organs looking for a suitable place to lay, they inevitably pick up and deposit pollen. 

Floral morphology and interaction between midge larvae (white arrows) in  Illicium tsangii

This is not the end of this relationship though. After eggs have been deposited, something strange happens to the Illicium flowers. For starters, they develop nursery chambers around the midge larvae. Additionally, their tepals begin producing heat. Enough heat is produced to keep the nursery chamber temperature significantly warmer than the ambient air temperature. What's more flower heating intensifies throughout the duration of fruit development. It was originally hypothesized that this heating had something to do with floral odor volatilization and seed incubation, however, experiments have shown that at least seed development in these two shrubs is not influenced by floral heat in any major way. The same cannot be said for the midge larvae. 

As the flowers mature and give way to developing seeds, the midge larvae are hard at work feeding on tiny bits of the flowers themselves. When researchers looked at midge larvae development on these Illicium species, they found that they were completely dependent upon the floral heat for survival. Any significant drop in temperature caused them to die. Essentially, the plants appear to be producing heat more for the midges than for themselves. It may seem odd that these two plants would invest so much energy to heat their flowers so that midge larvae feeding on their tissues can survive but such face-value opinions rarely stand in ecology.

One must not forget that those larvae grow up to be adult midges that will go on to pollinate the Illicium flowers the following season. Although the plants are taking a bit of a hit by allowing the larvae to develop within their tissues, they are nonetheless ensuring that enough pollinators will be around to repeat the process again. If that wasn't cool enough, the relationship between each of these plants and their pollinators are rather specific and the authors of at least one paper believe that the midges that pollinate each species are new to science. 

Now, if I haven't managed to convince you that this angiosperm sister lineage is anything but primitive, then let's take a look at another genus within the family Schisandraceae that have taken this midge pollination syndrome to the next level. This story also takes place in Asia but instead involves a genus of woody vines known as Kadsura

Like the Illicium we mentioned earlier, a handful of Kadsura species rely on midges for pollination. The way in which they go about maintaining this relationship is a bit more involved. The midges that are attracted by Kadsura flowers are known as resin midges and their larvae live off of plant resins. The flowers of Kadsura are another story entirely. They are as odd as they are beautiful. 

Flowers, pollinators ,and their larvae (white arrows) in  Kadsura heteroclita .

Flowers, pollinators ,and their larvae (white arrows) in Kadsura heteroclita.

In male flowers, stamens are arranged in dense, cone-like structures called androecia whereas the female flowers contain a compact shield-like structure with the uppermost part of the stigma barely emerging. This is called a gynoecium. Even weirder, the male flowers of one particularly strange species, Kadsura coccinea, produce large, swollen inner tepals. 

Once Kadsura flowers begin to open, visiting midges are not far behind. Male flowers seem to attract more midges than female flowers and it is thought that this has to do with varying amounts of special attractant chemicals produced by the flowers themselves. Regardless, midges set to work exploring the blooms with males looking for mates and females looking for a place to lay their eggs. 

When a suitable spot has been found, females will deposit their eggs into the floral tissues with their ovipositor. The wounded plant tissues immediately begin producing resin, not unlike a wounded pine tree. In the case of K. coccinea, it would appear that the oddly swollen tepals are specifically targeted by female midges for egg laying. They too produce resin upon having eggs laid within. 

The oddball flowers of Kadsura coccinea showing swollen tepals.

The function of plant resins in many cases are to fight off pathogens. From beetles to fungi, resin helps plug up and seal off wounds. This does not seem to be the case in the Kadsura-midge relationship though. The so-called "brood chambers" within the floral tissues go on producing resin for upwards of 6 days after the midge eggs were laid. Eventually the floral parts whither and drop off but the midge larvae seem to be quite happy in their resin-filled homes. 

As it turns out, the resin midge larvae feed on the viscous resin as their sole food source. Instead of trying to ward off these pesky little insects, the plants seem to be encouraging them to raise their offspring within! Just as we saw in the Asian Illicium, these Kadsura vines seem to be providing brood sites for their pollinators. Also, just as the Illicium-midge relationship thought to be species specific, each species of Kadsura appears to have its own specific species of resin midge pollinator! K. coccinea even goes as far as to produce tepals specifically geared towards raising midge larvae, thus keeping them away from their more valuable reproductive organs. In return for the nursery service, Kadsura have their pollinators all to themselves.

Pollination mutualisms in which plants trade raising larvae for pollen transfer are extremely derived and some of the most specialize plant/animal interactions on the planet. To find such relationships in these basal or sister lineages is living proof that these plants are anything but primitive. In the energy-reproductive investment trade-off, it appears that ensuring ample pollinator opportunities far outweighs the cost of providing them with nursery chambers. It is remarkable to think just how intertwined the relationships between these plants and there pollinators truly are. Take that, plant taxonomic prejudices! 

Photo Credits: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1] [2] 

 

The Nitrogen-Fixing Abilities of Cycads

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Long before the first legumes came onto the scene, the early ancestors of Cycads were hard at work fixing atmospheric nitrogen. However, they don't do this on their own. Despite being plentiful in Earth's atmosphere, gaseous nitrogen is not readily available to most forms of life. Only a special subset of organisms are capable of turning gaseous nitrogen into forms usable for life. Some of the first organisms to do this were the cyanobacteria, which has led them down the path towards symbioses with various plants on many occasions. 

Cycads are but one branch of the gymnosperm tree. Their lineage arose at some point between the Carboniferous and Permian eras. Throughout their history it would seem that Cycads have done quite well in poor soils. They owe this success to a partnership they struck up with cyanobacteria. Although it is impossible to say when exactly this happened, all extant cycads we know of today maintain this symbiotic relationship with these tiny prokaryotic organisms. 

Cross section of a coralloid cycad root showing the green cyanobacteria inside.

Cross section of a coralloid cycad root showing the green cyanobacteria inside.

The relationship takes place in Cycad roots. Cycads don't germinate with cyanobacteria in tow. They must acquire them from their immediate environment. To do so, they begin forming specialized structures called precoralloid roots. Unlike other roots that generally grow downwards, these roots grow upwards. They must situate themselves in the upper layer of soil where enough light penetrates for cyanobacteria to photosynthesize.

The cyanobacteria enter into the precoralloid roots through tiny cracks and take up residence. This causes a change in root development. The Cycad then initiates their development into true coralloid roots, which will house the cyanobacteria from that point on. Cycads appear to be in full control of the relationship, dolling out carbohydrates in return for nitrogen depending on the demands of their environment. Coralloid roots can shed and reform throughout the lifetime of the plant. It is quite remarkable to think about how nitrogen-fixing symbiotic relationships between plants and microbes have evolved independently throughout the history of life on this planet.

Photo Credits: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1] [2]

 

The Hidden Anatomy of Grass Flowers

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Grass flowers have their own unique beauty. Examine them with a hand lens and a whole new world of angiosperm diversity suddenly opens up. Unlike other flowering plants, their charm lies not in showy sepals or petals, but in an intricacy centered around the utilization of wind for pollination. However, such floral organs are not lacking. Grass flowers do in fact produce a perianth, the function of which has been highly modified.

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To see what I am referring to, you need to do some dissection under a scope. Pull off a flower and peel away the sheaths (the palea and lemma) that cover it. Inside you will see an ovary complete with feathery stigmas as well as the anthers. At the base of the ovary sits a pair of scales called lodicules. These lodicules are thought to be the rudimentary remains of the perianth. They certainly don't resemble sepals or petals but that is because the function of these structures is not to attract pollinators. They assist in pollination in another way.

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When grass flowers are ready for reproduction, the lodicules begin to swell. This swelling serves to push apart the rigid palea and lemma that protected the flowering parts as they developed. Once apart, the anthers and stigma are free to emerge and let wind do the dirty work for them. Lodicules differ quite a bit from species to species in their size, shape, and overall appearance. Much of this is likely tied to the overall structure in grass flowers.

Photo Credits: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1]

 

Evidence Of Carnivory In Teasel

As far as carnivorous plants are concerned, the common teasel (Dipsacus fullonum) seems like a strange fit. Observe this plant up close, however, and you might notice something interesting. Its leaves are perfoliate and form a cup-like depression where they attach to the main stem. Not only does this cup regularly fill with water, it also frequently traps small insects.

Many have speculated over the function of this anatomical trap. Much of this speculation has centered around the idea that it may serve as a form of protection for the flowers located above. Insect herbivores climbing up the stem in search of food instead find a moat of water. Some inevitably fall in and drown in the process. Other hypotheses have been put forward as well including the possibility of something approaching carnivory. 

The idea that common teasel could be, to some degree, carnivorous never really went away. For most of this time it has remained entirely theoretical. There simply was no empirical evidence available to say otherwise. All of that changed with a 2011 study published in PLOS. A research duo finally put this theory to the test in the first ever experiment to see if teasel gains any sort of nutrient benefit from its insect victims.

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By systematically supplying teasel plants with insect prey, the team was able to look at how plants responded to the addition of a potential meal. They added various levels of insect larvae to some plants and removed them from others. For their study, evidence would come in the form of some sort of physiological response to the feeding treatments. If teasel really is obtaining nutrients from its insect victims, it stands to reason that those nutrients would be allocated to either growth or reproduction.

The resulting data offers the first evidence that teasel may in fact be benefiting from the insect carcasses. Although the team found no evidence that plants supplemented with insects were increasing in overall biomass, they did see a positive effect on not only the number of seeds produced but also their size. In other words, when fed a diet of insects, the plants weren't growing any larger but they were producing larger amounts of heavier seeds. This is a real boon for a plant with a biennial life cycle like teasel. The more healthy seeds they can produce, the better.

As exciting as these finds are, one must temper their expectations. As the authors themselves state in their paper, these findings must be replicated in order to say for certain that the effects they measured were due to the addition of insect prey. Second, no chemical analyses were made to determine if the plants are actively digesting these insects or even how available nutrients may be absorbed. Simply put, more work is needed. Perhaps teasel is a species that, evolutionary speaking, is on its way to becoming a true carnivore. We still can't say for sure. Nonetheless, they have given us the first evidence in support of a theory that went more than a century without testing. It is interesting to think that there is a strong possibility that if someone wants to see a carnivorous plant, they need go no further than a fallow field.

Photo Credits: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1]

Red or White?

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Who doesn't love a nice oak tree? One cannot overstate their importance both ecologically and culturally. Although picking an oak tree out of a lineup is something many of us are capable of doing, identifying oaks to species can be a bit more challenging. This is further complicated by the fact that oaks often hybridize. Still, it is likely you have come across some useful tips and tricks for narrowing down your oak choices. One such trick is distinguishing between the red oaks and the white oaks. If you're anything like me, this is something you took for granted for a while. Is there anything biologically or ecologically meaningful to such a split?

In short, yes. However, a true appreciation of these groups requires a deeper look. To start with, oaks are members of the genus Quercus, which belongs in the family Fagaceae. Globally there are approximately 400 species of oak and each falls into one of three categories - the red oaks (section Lobatae), the white oaks (section Quercus), and the so-called "intermediate" oaks (section Protoblanus). For the sake of this article, I will only be focusing on the red and white groups as that is where most of the oak species reside. The intermediate oak group is made up of 5 species, all of which are native to the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico.

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As is common with oak identification, reliable techniques for distinguishing between the two groups can be tricky. Probably the most reliable feature is located on the inner surface of the acorn cap. In white oaks, it is hairless or nearly so, whereas in red oaks, it is covered in tiny hairs. Another useful acorn feature is the length of time it takes them to germinate. White oak acorns mature in one season and germinate in the fall. As such, they contain lower levels of tannins. Red oak acorns (as well as those of the intermediate group) generally take at least two seasons to mature and therefore germinate the following spring. Because of this, red oak acorns have a much higher tannin content. For more information on why this is the case, read this article.

Tyloses in white oak xylem.

Less apparent than acorns is the difference in the wood of red and white oaks. The wood of white oaks contains tiny structures in their xylem tissues called tyloses. These are absent from the wood of red oaks. The function of tyloses are quite interesting. During extreme drought or in the case of some sort of infection, they cut off regions of the xylem to stop the spread of an embolism or whatever may be infecting the tree. As such, white oaks tend to be more rot and drought resistant. Fun fact, tyloses are the main reason why white oak is used for making wine and bourbon barrels as it keeps them from leaking their contents.

More apparent to the casual observer, however, is leaf shape. In general, the white oaks produce leaves that have rounded lobes, whereas the red oaks generally exhibit pointed lobes with a tiny bristle on their tips. At this point you may be asking where an unlobed species like shingle oak (Quercus imbricaria) fits in. Look at the tip of its leaf and you will see a small bristle, which means its a member of the red oak group. Similarly, the buds of these two groups often differ in their overall shape. White oak buds tend to be smaller and often have blunted tips whereas the buds of red oaks are generally larger and often pointed.

Tricky leaves of the shingle oak ( Quercus imbricaria ). Note the bristle tip!

Tricky leaves of the shingle oak (Quercus imbricaria). Note the bristle tip!

Despite this broad generalizations, exceptions abound. This is further complicated by the fact that many species will readily hybridize. Quercus is, after all, a massive genus. Regardless, oaks are wonderful species chock full of ecological and cultural value. Still, oak appreciation is something we all need more of in our lives. I encourage you to try some oak identification of your own. Get outside and see if you can use any of these tricks to help you identify some of the oaks in your neighborhood.

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4]

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

More to Tall Boneset Than Meets the Eye

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For most of the growing season, tell boneset (Eupatorium altissimum) is largely overlooked. When it comes time to flower, however, it is impossible to miss. Contrasted against a sea of goldenrods, its bright white flowers really stand out. This is a hardy species, tolerating lots of sun and dry soils. It is also a boon for pollinators and is usually humming with attention. To the naked eye, it would seem that there is nothing strange going on with this species. It grows, flowers, and sets seed year after year. However, a genes eye view of tall boneset tells a vastly different story. 

A population wide study revealed that the vast majority of the tall boneset plants we encounter are females. In fact, only populations found in the Ozark Mountains were found to be sexually viable. This was quite fascinating considering how wide spread this species is in North America. A close examination of the genome revealed that sexual plants were genetically diploid whereas the female-only plants were genetically triploid. These triploid plants produce sterile male parts that either have highly deformed pollen grains or produce no pollen at all. 

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Sexual populations of tall boneset do not reproduce vegetatively. They must be cross pollinated in order to set seed. Such is not the case for the female-only populations. These plants set seed on their own without any pollen entering into the equation. The seeds they produce are essentially clones of the mother plant. Such asexual reproduction seems to be quite advantageous for these plants. For starters, they produce considerably more seed than their sexually reproducing relatives. The offspring produced from those seeds, having the same genetic makeup as their mothers, are inherently well-adapted to whatever conditions their mothers were growing in. As such, populations can readily colonize and expand, which goes a long way in explaining the female-only dominance. 

Although tall boneset really hits its stride in midwestern North America, it can be found growing throughout the eastern portion of this continent. Casual observation would never reveal such interesting population dynamics which is why single species studies are so important. Not only do we learn that much more about a beloved plant, we also gain an understanding of how plants evolve over time as well as factors one must consider should conservation measures ever need to be considered. 

Further Reading: [1] 

How Do Palms Survive Hurricanes?

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The destructive force of typhoons and hurricanes are no joking matter. Human structures are torn to shreds and flooded in the blink of an eye. It is devastating to say the least. With all of this destruction, one must wonder how native flora and fauna have coped with such forces over millions of years. The true survivors of these sorts of storms are the palms. What would completely shred an oak seems to ruffle a palm tree. What is it about palms that allows them to survive these storms intact? 

To better understand palm adaptations, one must first consider their place on the evolutionary tree. Palms are monocots and they have more in common with grasses than they do trees like oaks or pines. Their wood evolved independently of other tree species. Take a look at a palm stump. Instead of rings, you will see a dense structure of tiny straws that resemble the cross section of a telephone wire. This is because palms do not produce secondary xylem tissues that give other trees their rings. This makes them far more bendy than their dicotyledonous neighbors.

Whereas the woods of oaks and maples are really good at supporting a lot of branch weight, such wood is considerably more rigid than that of palms. Palms forgo heavy branches for large leaves and therefore invest more in flexibility. The main stems of some palm species can bend as much as 40 to 50 degrees before snapping, a perfect adaptation to dealing with regular storm surges. 

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Another adaptation of the palms are their leaves. Unlike most trees, palms don't bother with spindly branches. Instead, they produce a canopy of large leaves supported by a flexible midrib. These act sort of like large feathers, allowing their canopy to readily shed water and bend against even the strongest winds. Although their leaves will snap if buffeted hard enough, palm canopies accrue considerably less damage under such conditions. Another adaptation exhibited by palm leaves is their ability to fold up like a paper fan. This reduces their otherwise large surface area against powerful winds. 

Finally, palms have rather dense roots. They sacrifice size for quantity. Instead of a few large roots anchored into the soil, palms produce a multitude of smaller roots that spread out into the upper layers of the soil. This is especially useful when growing in sand. By increasing the number of roots they put down, palms are able to hold on to a larger volume of soil and therefore possess a much heavier base. This keeps them stranding upright in all but the worst conditions. 

Of course, these are rather broad generalizations. Not all palms have evolved in response to such punishing weather events. Research has shown that such adaptations are more prevalent in palms growing in places like the Caribbean than they are in palms growing in the rainforests of South America. Regardless, their phylogenetic history has stood the test of time and will continue to do so for quite some time. 

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

Further Reading: [1] [2] 

How Plants Influence Honeybee Caste System

Is has long been known that food fed to larval honeybees influences their development and therefore their place in the hive. Larvae fed a mixture of pollen and honey, often referred to as "bee bread," develop into sterile workers whereas larvae fed special secretions termed "royal jelly" from nurses within the colony will develop into queens. Despite this knowledge, the mechanisms underpinning such drastic developmental differences have remained a mystery... until now.

A team of researchers from Nanjing University in China have uncovered the secret to honeybee caste systems and it all comes down to the plants themselves. It all has to do with tiny molecules within plants called microRNA. In eukaryotic organsisms, microRNA plays a fundamental role in the regulation of gene expression. In plants, they have considerable effects on flower size and color. In doing so, they can make floral displays more attractive to busy honeybees.

Photo Credit: [1]

Photo Credit: [1]

As bees collect pollen and nectar, they pick up large quantities of these microRNA molecules. Back in the hive, these products are not distributed equally, which influences the amount of microRNA molecules that are fed to developing larvae. The team found that microRNA molecules are much more concentrated in bee bread than they are in royal jelly. Its this difference in concentrations that appears to be at the root of the caste system.

Larvae that were fed bee bread full of microRNA molecules developed smaller bodies and reduced, sterile ovaries. In other words, they developed into the worker class. Alternatively, larvae fed royal jelly, which has much lower concentrations of microRNA, developed along a more "normal" pathway, complete with functioning ovaries and a fuller body size; they developed into queens.

All of this hints at a deep co-evolutionary relationship. The fact that these microRNA molecules not only make plants more attractive to pollinators but also influence the caste system of these insects is quite remarkable. Additionally, this opens up new doors into understanding co-evolutionary dynamics. If horizontal transfer of regulatory molecules between two vastly different kingdoms of life can manifest in such important ecological relationships, there is no telling what more is awaiting discovery. 

Further Reading: [1]

 

Grasses That Feign Infestation

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Given the option, most of us would rather avoid a salad riddled with insects or an apple chock full of worms. Much as we prefer to avoid insect-infested fruits and vegetables, so too do many herbivores. Some plants seem to be taking advantage of this. In response to strong herbivore pressure, some plant species have evolved insect mimicry. One such case involves grass and aphids. 

Paspalum paspaloides can be found growing in tropical regions around the globe. In many ways they are similar to other C4 grasses. When they flower, however, one may notice something interesting. All of the flowers appear to be covered in aphids. Close inspection would reveal that this is not the case. Those clusters of dark specks swaying the breeze are simply the numerous dark anthers of the inflorescence. This has led some to hypothesize that these plants may be mimicking an aphid infestation.

This observation begs the question: "what benefit is there in mimicking aphids?" There are two major hypotheses that have been proposed in order to explain this phenomenon. The first is defense against herbivory. As stated above, herbivores often avoid plant material that has been infested with insects. Aside from any potential palatability issues, large populations of insect pests can signal a decrease in the nutritional value of a potential food source. Why waste time eating something that is already being eaten? Evidence in support of this hypothesis has come from other systems. A wide array of herbivores, both mammalian and insect, have been shown to avoid aphid-infested plant material.

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The second hypothesis is one of avoiding future infestations. Aphids are clonal organisms with a short generation time. It does not take long for a few aphids to become many, and many to become an infestation. As such, aphids looking for a new plant to colonize habitually avoid plants that already have aphids on them. It could very well be that such aphid mimicry is a means by which the grass keeps actual aphids at bay.

If this is a form of true mimicry then the question is not a matter of which hypothesis but the relative influence of each. It seems that it very well could be driven by a mixture of both strategies. Still, all of this is speculative until actual experiments are carried out. Those who originally put forth these ideas have identified similar potential mimicry systems in other plants as well. The idea is ripe for the testing!

Photo Credits: [1]

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

 

Floral Mucilage

Spend enough time around various Bromeliads and you will undoubtedly notice that some species have a rather gooey inflorescence. Indeed, floral mucilage is a well documented phenomenon within this family, with something like 30 species known to exhibit this trait. It is an odd thing to experience to say the least.

The goo takes on an interesting consistency. It reminds me a bit of finding frog spawn as a kid. Their brightly colored flowers erupt from this gooey coating upon maturity and the seeds of some species actually develop within the slimy coating. Needless to say, the presence of mucilage in these genera has generated some attention. Why do these plants do this?

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Some have suggested that it is a type of reward for visiting pollinators. Analysis of the goo revealed that it is 99% water and 1% carbohydrate matrix with no detectable sugars or any other biologically useful compounds. As such, it probably doesn't do much in the way of attracting or rewarding flower visitors. Another hypothesis is that it could offer antimicrobial properties. Bromeliads are most often found in warm, humid climates where fungi and bacteria can really do a number. Again, no antimicrobial compounds were discovered nor did the mucilage show any sort of growth inhibition when placed in bacterial cultures.

It is far more likely that the mucilage offers protection from hungry herbivores. Flowers are everything to a flowering plant. They are, after all, the sexual organs. They take a lot of energy to produce and are often brightly colored, making them prime targets for a meal. Anything that protects the flowers during development would be a boon for any species. Indeed, it appears that the mucilage acts as a physical barrier, protecting the developing flowers and seeds. One study found that flowers protected by mucilage received significantly less damage from weevils than those without mucilage.

The mucilage could also provide another benefit to Bromeliads. Because these plants rely on water stored in the middle of their rosette (the tank, as it is sometimes called), some species may also gain a nutritional benefit as well. Bromeliad flowers emerge from this central tank so anything that gets stuck in the mucilage may eventually end up decomposing in the water. Since nutrients are absorbed along with the water, this could be an added meal for the plant. To date, this has not been confirmed. More work is needed before we can say for sure.

Photo Credit: [1] [2]

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

 

The Squirting Cucumber

Plants have gone to great lengths when it comes to seed dispersal. One of the most bizarre examples of this can be found in an ambling Mediterranean plant affectionately referred to as the squirting cucumber. As funny as this may sound, the name could not be more appropriate. 

Known scientifically as Ecballium elaterium, the squirting cucumber can be found growing along roadsides and other so-called "waste places" from the Mediterranean regions of western Europe and northern Africa all the way to parts of temperate Asia. It is the only member of its genus, which resides in the family Cucurbitaceae. It is a rather toxic species as well, with all parts of the plant producing a suite of chemicals called cucurbitacins. In total, it seems like a rather unassuming plant. It goes through the motions of growing and flowering throughout the summer months but the real show begins once its odd fruits have ripened. 

A cursory inspection would not reveal anything readily different about its fruit. Following fertilization, they gradually swell into modest sized version of the sorts you expect from this family of plants. It's what is going on within the fruit that is rather interesting. As the fruit reaches maturity, the tissues surrounding the seeds begin to break down. The breakdown of this material creates a lot of mucilaginous liquid, causing internal pressure to build. And I mean a lot of pressure. Measurements have revealed that at peak ripening, pressures within the fruit can reach upwards of 27 atm, which is 27 times the amount of atmospheric pressure we experience when standing at sea level!

A cross section of the fruit showing the weakened connection point.

A cross section of the fruit showing the weakened connection point.

At the same time, the attachment point of the stem or "peduncle" begins to weaken. With all that pressure building, it isn't long before something has to give. This is exactly the moment when the squirting cucumber earns its name. The stem breaks away from the fruit, revealing a small hole. Within a fraction of a second, all of that pressurized mucilage comes rocketing outward carrying the precious cargo of seeds with it. 

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The result is pretty remarkable. Seeds are launched anywhere from 6 to 20 feet (1 - 6 m) away from the parent plant. This form of dispersal falls under the category of ballistic seed dispersal and it is incredibly effective. Getting away from the competitive environment immediately surrounding your parents is the first step in the success of any plant. The squirting cucumber does just that. It is no wonder then that this is an incredibly successful plant species. 

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

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

Closed on Account of Weather

Alpine and tundra zones are harsh habitats for any organism. Favorable conditions are fleeting and nasty weather can crop up in the blink of an eye. Whereas animals in these habitats can take cover, plants don't have that luxury. They are stuck in place and have to deal with whatever comes their way. Despite these challenges, myriad plant species have adapted to these conditions and thrive where other plants would perish. The intense selection pressures of these habitats have led to some fascinating evolutionary adaptations, especially when it comes to reproduction.

Take, for instance, the Arctic gentian (Gentianodes algida). This lovely plant can be found growing in alpine and tundra habitats in both North America and Asia. Like most plants of these habitats, the Arctic gentian has a low growth habit, forming a dense cluster of fleshy, narrow leaves that hug the ground. This protects the plant from blustering winds and extreme cold. From late July until early September, when the short growing season is nearly over, this wonderful plant comes into bloom. 

Clusters of white and blue speckled flowers are borne on short stems and, unlike other angiosperms that readily self-pollinate under harsh conditions, the Arctic gentian requires outcrossing to set seed. This can be troublesome. As you can imagine, pollinators can be in short supply in these habitats. What's more, with conditions changing on a dime, the flowers must be able to cope with whatever comes their way. The Arctic gentian is not helpless though. It has an interesting adaptation to these habitats and it involves movement.

Only a handful of plant species are known for their ability to move their various organs with relative rapidity. This gentian probably doesn't make that list very often. However, it probably should as its flowers are capable of responding to changes in weather by closing up shop. It is not alone in this behavior. Plenty of plant species will close their flowers on cold, dreary days. What is so special about the Arctic gentian is that it seems especially attuned to the weather. Within minutes of an incoming thunderstorm (a daily occurrence in the Rockies, for example) the Arctic gentian will close up its flowers. This is done via changes in turgor pressure within the cells. But what is the signal that cues this gentian in that a storm is fast approaching?

Researchers have investigated multiple stimuli in search of the answer. Plants don't seem to respond to changes in sunlight, wind, or humidity. Instead, temperature seemed to be the only signal capable of eliciting this response. When temperatures suddenly drop, the flowers will begin to close. Only when the temperature begins to rise will the flowers reopen. These movements are quite rapid too. Flowers will close completely within 6 - 10 minutes of a rapid decease in temperature. The reverse takes a bit longer, with most flowers needing 25 - 40 minutes to reopen.

So, why does the plant go through the trouble of closing up shop? It all has to do with sexual reproduction in these harsh conditions. Because this species doesn't self, pollen is at a premium. The plant simply can't afford the risk of rain washing it all away. The tightly closed flowers prevent that from happening. Also, wet flowers have been shown to discourage pollinators, even when favorable weather returns. Aside from interfering with pollen, rain also dilutes nectar, reducing its energy content and thus reducing the reward for any bee that would potentially visit the flower.

Being able to rapidly respond in changes in weather is important in these volatile habitats. Plants must be able to cope otherwise they risk extirpation. By closing up its flowers during inclement weather, the Arctic gentian is able to protect its vital reproductive resources.

Photo Credits: [1]

Further Reading: [1]