Slippery When Wet

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Pitcher plants in the genus Nepenthes have been getting a lot of attention in the literature as of late. Not only have researchers discovered the use of ultraviolet pigments around the rims of their pitchers, it has also been noted that the pitchers of many species aren't as slippery as we think they are. Indeed, scientists have noted that prey capture is at its highest only when the pitchers are wet. This seems counterintuitive. Why would a plant species that relies on the digestion of insects for most of its nitrogen and phosphorus needs produce insect traps that are only effective at certain times? After all, it takes a lot of energy for these plants to produce pitchers, which give little to nothing back in the way of photosynthesis. 

The answer to this peculiar conundrum may lie in the types of insects these plants are capturing. Ants are ubiquitous throughout the world. Their gregarious and exploratory nature has provided ample selection pressures for much of the plant kingdom. They are particularly well known for their military-esque raiding parties. It is this behavior that researchers have looked at in order to explain the intermittent effectiveness of Nepenthes pitchers. 

A recent study that looked at Nepenthes rafflesiana found that ants made up 65% of the prey captured, especially on pitchers produced up in the canopy. What's more, younger pitchers produced closer to the ground were found to be much more slippery (containing more waxy cells) than those produced farther up on the plant. When the pitchers of this species were kept wet, prey capture consisted mostly of individual insects such as flies. However, when allowed to dry between wettings, the researchers found that prey capture, specifically ants, increased dramatically. How is this possible?

It all goes back to the way in which ants forage. A colony sends out scouts in all directions. Once a scout finds food, it lays down a pheromone trail that other ants will follow. It is believed that this is the very behavior that Nepenthes are relying on. The traps produce nectar as a lure for their insect prey. As the traps dry up, the nectar becomes concentrated. Ants find this sugary treat irresistible. However, if the pitcher were to be slippery at all times, it is likely that most ant scouts would be killed before they could ever report back to the colony. By reducing the slippery waxes, especially around the rim of the trap, the Nepenthes are giving the ants a chance to "spread the news" about this new food source. Because these plants grow in tropical regions, humidity and precipitation can fluctuate wildly throughout a 24 hour period. If the scouting party returns at a time in which the pitchers are wet then the plant stands to capture far more ants than it did if it had only caught the scout. 

This is what is referred to as batch capture. The plants may be hedging their bets towards occasional higher nutrient input than constant low input. This is bolstered by the differences between pitchers produced at different points on the plant. Lower pitchers, especially on younger plants are far more waxy and thus are constantly slippery. This allows constant prey capture to fuel rapid growth into the canopy. Upper pitchers on older individuals want to maximize their yields via this batch capture method and therefore produce fewer waxy cells, relying on a humid climate to do the work for them. It is likely that this is a form of tradeoff which benefits different life cycle stages for the plant. 

Photo Credit: Andrea Schieber (http://bit.ly/1xUsGJk)

Further Reading:

http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/282/1801/20142675

Nature's Radar

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Are you sitting down? You may want to before you read this. The relationship I am about to tell you about is pretty amazing. Coevolution is never a dull topic and the following example may be one of the coolest in the living world. 

Meet Marcgravia evenia. This vining plant species is native to Cuba and, like other members of its genus, relies on bats for pollination. This is nothing new. Many plant species utilize bats as pollen vectors. Bat pollinated flowers are often quite fragrant, using powerful odors to tap into the bats keen sense of smell. Marcgravia evenia is different though. This tropical vine taps into another batty sense, echolocation. 

Right above the flowers is a dish-shaped leaf. This leaf functions as a reflector for the bats sonar! Indeed, when tested, bats were twice as likely to find plants with these dish-shaped leaves than they were if the leaves were removed. This is an incredible coevolutionary adaptation! Because the vines are rare in the wild, anything that would increase the likelihood of a bat visitation would incur a considerable selective advantage. The dish-shaped leaves do just that. According to the authors of the paper, "the leaf's echoes fulfilled requirements for an effective beacon, that is, they were strong, multidirectional, and had a recognizable invariant echo signature." Nature never fails to amaze!

Photo Credit: Ralph Simon

Further Reading:

http://www.sciencemag.org/content/333/6042/631