From Herbivore to Pollinator Thanks to a Parasitoid

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In the Atlantic forests of Brazil resides a small orchid known scientifically as Dichaea cogniauxiana. Like most plant species, this orchid experiences plenty of pressure from herbivores. It faces rather intense pressures from two species of weevil in the genus Montella. These weevils are new to science and have yet been given full species status. What's more, they don't appear to eat the leaves of D. cogniauxiana. Instead, female weevils lay eggs in the developing fruits and the larvae hatch out and consume the seeds within. In other words, they treat the fruits like a nursery chamber.

This is where this relationship gets interesting. You see, the weevils themselves appear to take matters into their own hands. Instead of waiting to find already pollinated orchids, an event that can be exceedingly rare in the dense Amazonian forests, these weevils go about pollinating the orchids themselves. Females have been observed picking up orchid pollinia and depositing the pollen onto the stigmas. In this way, they ensure that there will be developing fruits in which they can raise their young.

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Left unchecked, the weevil larvae readily consume all of the developing seeds within the pod, an unfortunate blow to the reproductive efforts of this tiny orchid. However, the situation changes when parasitoid wasps enter the mix. The wasps are also looking for a place to rear their young but the wasp larvae do not eat orchid seeds. Instead, the wasps must find juicy weevil larvae in which to lay their eggs. When the wasp larvae hatch out, they eat the weevil larvae from the inside out and this is where things get really interesting.

The wasp larvae develop at a much faster rate than do the weevil larvae. As such, they kill the weevil long before it has a chance to eat all of the orchid seeds. By doing so, the wasp has effectively rescued the orchids reproductive effort. Over a five year period, researchers based out of the University of Campinas found that orchid fruits in which wasp larvae have killed off the weevil larvae produced nearly as many seeds as uninfected fruits. As such, the parasitoid wasps have made effective pollinators out of otherwise destructive herbivorous weevils.

The fact that a third party (in this case a parasitic wasp) can change a herbivore into an effective pollinator is quite remarkable to say the least. It reminds us just how little we know about the intricate ways in which species interact and form communities. The authors note that even though pollination in this case represents selfing and thus reduced genetic diversity, it nonetheless increases the reproductive success of an orchid that naturally experiences low pollination rates to begin with. In the hyper diverse and competitive world of Brazilian rainforests, even self-pollination cab be a boost for this orchid.

Photo Credits: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1]

Fish: The Unsung Heroes of Seed Dispersal

Fruits of the tucum palm.

Fruits of the tucum palm.

It goes without saying that effective seed (and spore) dispersal is vital for thriving plant populations. Without it, plant populations will stagnate and disappear. Whereas we know quite a bit about the role animals like birds, bats, and ants play in this process, there is another group of seed dispersers that are proving to be vital to the long-term health and survival of tropical forests around the globe - fish. 

The idea of seed dispersing fish may come as a shock to some but mounting evidence is showing that fruit-eating fish play a major role in the reproductive cycle of many tropical plant species. This is especially true in seasonally flooded tropical forests. To date, more than 100 different fish species have been found with viable seeds in their guts. In fact, some fish species, such as the pacu (Piaractus mesopotamicus), specialize on eating fruits.

A big ol' pacu looking for its next fruit meal.

A big ol' pacu looking for its next fruit meal.

By monitoring how fruit-eating fish like the pacu behave in their environment, scientists are painting a picture of tropical seed dispersal that is quite remarkable. Take, for instance, the tucum palm (Bactris glaucescens). Native to Brazil's Pantanal, this palm produces large, red fruits and everything from peccaries to iguanas will consume them. However, when eaten by these animals, the seed either don't make it through the gut in one piece or they end up being pooped out into areas unsuitable for germination. Only when the seeds have been consumed by the pacu do they end up in the right place in the right condition. It appears that pacus are the main seed dispersal agent for this palm. 

A beautiful tucum palm in the dry season.

A beautiful tucum palm in the dry season.

The tucum palm isn't alone either. The seeds of myriad other plant species known to inhabit such seasonally flooded habitats seem to germinate and grow most effectively only after having been dispersed by fish. Pacus are also responsible for a considerable amount of seed dispersal for plants such as Tocoyena formosa (Rubiaceae), Licania parvifolia (Chrysobalanaceae), and Inga uruguensis (Fabaceae). Even outside of the tropics, fish like the channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) are being found to be important seed dispersers of riparian plants such as the eastern swampprivet (Forestiera acuminata).

Camu-camu ( Myrciaria dubia )

Camu-camu (Myrciaria dubia)

Without fish, these plants would have a hard time with seed dispersal in such seasonally flooded habitats. Lacking a dispersal agent, these seeds would be stuck at the bottom of a river, buried in anoxic mud. As fish migrate into flooded forests, they can move seeds remarkable distances from their parents. When the flood waters recede, the seeds find themselves primed and ready to usher in the next generation.

Fruits of the Camu-camu ( Myrciaria dubia ) also benefit from dispersal by fish.

Fruits of the Camu-camu (Myrciaria dubia) also benefit from dispersal by fish.

Not all fish perform this task equally as well. Even within a species, there are differences in the effectiveness of seed dispersal services. Scientists are finding that large fish are most effective at proper seed dispersal. Not only can they consume whole fruits with little to no issue, they are also the fish that are most physically capable of moving large distances. Sadly, humans are seriously disrupting this process in a lot of ways.

For starters, dams and other impediments are cutting off the migratory routs of many fish species. Large fish are no longer able to make it into flooded regions of forest far upstream once a dam is in place. What's more, dams keep large tracts of forest from flooding entirely. As such, fish are no longer able to migrate into these regions, which means less seeds are making it there as well. This is bad news for forest regeneration.

"Gimme fruit" says local channel cat.

"Gimme fruit" says local channel cat.

It's not just dams hurting fish either. Over-fishing is a serious issue in most water ways. Pacus, for instance, have seen precipitous declines throughout the Amazon over the last few decades. Specifically targeted are large fish. Unfortunately, regulations that were put into place in order to help these fish may actually be harming their seed dispersal activities. Fish under a certain size must be released from any catch, thus a disproportionate amount of large fish are being removed from the system.

Logging is taking a serious toll as well. Floodplain forests have been hit especially hard by logging, both legal and illegal. The lower Amazon River, for example, has almost no natural floodplain forests left. Reports from fish markets in these areas have shown fewer and fewer frugivorous fish each year. It would appear that large fruit-eating fish are disappearing in the areas that need seed dispersal the most. It is clear that something drastic needs to happen. At the very least, fruit-eating fish need more recognition for the ecosystem services they provide.

Forest health and management is a holistic endeavor. We cannot think of organisms in isolation. This is why ecological literacy is so important. We are only now starting to realize the role of large fish in forest regeneration and who knows what kinds of discoveries are just over the horizon. This is why land conservation efforts are so important. We must move to protect wild spaces before they are lost for good. Please consider donating to one of the many great land conservancy agencies around the globe. 

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

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

 

A Truly Bizarre Cactus From The Amazon

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When we think of cacti, we tend to think of dry deserts and sandy soils. Few of us would ever jump to the trunk of a tree, nestled in a humid rainforest, and experiencing periodic inundation. Yet, such a habitat is the hallmark of one of the world's strangest species of cactus - Selenicereus witii. In more ways than one, this species is truly aberrant.

Whereas epiphytic cacti aren't novel, the habits of S. witii surely push the limits of what we know about the entire cactus family. Despite having been discovered in 1899, little attention has been paid to this epiphytic cactus. What we do know comes from scant herbarium records and careful observation by a small handful of botanists.

S. witii is endemic to a region of central Amazonia and only grows in Igapó, or seasonally flooded, blackwater forests. It makes its living on the trunks of trees and its entire morphology seems particularly adapted to such a harsh lifestyle. Unlike most cacti, S. witii doesn't seem to bother with water storage. Instead, its stems grow completely appressed to the trunks of trees. Roots emerge from near the spine-bearing areoles and these help to anchor it in place. 

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Because they are often exposed to bright sunlight, the stems produce high amounts of chemical pigments called betalains. These act as sun block, protecting the sensitive photosynthetic machinery from too much solar radiation. These pigments also give the plant a deep red or purple color that really stands out against the trunks of trees. 

Like all members of this genus, S. witii produces absolutely stunning flowers. However, to see them, your best bet is to venture out at night. Flowers usually begin to open just after sundown and will be closed by morning. And my, what flowers they are! Individual blooms can be upwards of 27 cm long and 12.5 cm wide (10 in by 5 in)! They are also said to produce an intense fragrance. Much of their incredible length is a nectar tube that seems to be catered to a specific group of sphinx moths, whose proboscis is long enough to reach the nectar at the bottom.

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The seeds of S. witii are just as aberrant as the rest of the cactus. They are rather large and shaped like a kidney. Cross sections reveal that most of their size is devoted to hollow air chambers. Indeed, the seeds float like tiny pieces of cork when placed in water. This is likely an adaptation resulting from their preferred habitat.

As mentioned above, S. witii has only been found growing in seasonally flooded forests. What's more, plants only occur on the trunks of large trees right at the high water line. In fact, the highly appressed nature of its stems seems to suggest that this species can withstand periodic submergence in fast flowing water. The seeds must also cope with flooding and it is likely that their buoyant nature aids in seed dispersal during these periods. 

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All in all, this is one weird cactus. Although it isn't alone in its tropical epiphytic habit, it certainly takes the cake for being one of the most derived. Aside from a few publications, little attention has been given to this oddball. It would appear that the seasonal flooding of its preferred habitat has simply chased this cactus up into the trees, the environmental demands of which coaxed out strange but ingenious adaptations from its genome. The good news is that where it does occur, S. witii seems to grow in high numbers.

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

Further Reading: [1]

Devil's Gardens

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Imagine, if you will, walking through the dense understory somewhere in the Amazon basin. Diversity reigns supreme here and it would seem that every few steps reveals myriad new plant species. As you walk along, something in the vegetation changes. You stumble into a clearing in the middle of the forest dominated entirely by a single species of tree. Why the sudden change? How did this monoculture develop? You, my friend, have just found yourself on the edge of a Devil's garden. 

Devil's gardens are said to be the resting place of an evil spirit known to local tribes as Chullachaki. Anyone unlucky enough to stumble into his garden is said at risk of attack or curse. In reality, these gardens have a biological origin. The real gardeners are a handful of ant species which seem to have rather specific gardening preferences. Careful inspection would reveal that the gardens largely consist of trees in one of three genera - Duroia, Tococa, or Clidemia

Tococa  sp. (Melastomataceae)

Tococa sp. (Melastomataceae)

The reason that ants are so fond of these genera has to do with housing. These plant groups contain species which produce swellings along their stems and petioles known as domatia. These domatia are hollow and are the favorite nesting spots of various ant species. Ant colonies set up shop within. As anyone who has ever blundered into an ant colony can attest, ants are quite voracious at defending their home. 

By providing ant colonies with a home base, these plants have essentially hired body guards. It is a wonderful form of symbiosis in which the ants aggressively defend against anything that might want to take a bite out of their host tree. Any herbivore trying to take up residence or lay eggs within the Devil's garden is viciously attacked. In doing so, the ants are protecting their host trees at the cost of all other plants unlucky enough to germinate within the garden. Still, this anti-herbivore behavior doesn't totally explain the monoculture status these host trees achieve within the garden itself. Why are these gardens so ominously devoid of other plant species?

To answer this, one would have to watch how the ants behave as they forage. While scouting, if ants encounter a seedling of their host tree, nothing really happens. They go about their business and let the seedling grow into a future home. When they encounter a non-host tree, however, their behavior completely changes. 

Behold - A Devil's Garden

Behold - A Devil's Garden

The ants begin biting the stem of the plant, exposing its vascular tissue. As they bite, the ants also sting the foreign seedling, injecting minute amounts of formic acid into the wound. One or two ants isn't enough to bring down a seedling but one thing ants have on their side are numbers. Soon an entire platoon of ants descend upon the hapless seedling, stinging it repeatedly. In no time at all, the seedling succumbs to the formic acid injections and dies. By repeating this process any time a foreign plant is found growing within the vicinity of the garden, the resident ants ensure that only trees that will produce domatia are allowed to grow in their garden. Thus, a Devil's garden has been formed. 

Although this relationship seems incredibly beneficial for each party, it does come at some cost to the plants themselves. Certainly forming the domatia is a costly endeavor on the part of the plant, but research has also shown that growing in such high, monoculture-like densities in the jungle has its downsides. It has been found that individual host trees can actually experience more herbivore pressures when growing within a Devil's garden than if it was growing alone, elsewhere in the forest. 

Despite their aggression towards herbivores, the ants simply cannot be everywhere at once. As such, the high densities of host tree species within a Devil's garden act like a dinner bell for any insect that enjoys feeding on that particular type of plant. Essentially, the ants are concentrating a potential food source. Experts believe that this might explain why Devil's gardens never completely take over entire swaths of forest. Essentially, there are diminishing returns to living in such high densities. Still, benefits must outweigh costs if such mutualisms are to be maintained and it is quite obvious that both plant and ant benefit from this interaction to a great degree. 

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

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

Large Parrots And Their Influence On Amazonian Ecosystems

Parrots, especially the larger species, have long been thought to be a bane to plant reproduction. Anyone that has watched a parrot feed may understand why this has been the case. With their incredible beaks, parrots make short work of even the toughest seeds. However, this assumption is much too broad. In fact, recent research suggests that entire Amazonian ecosystems may have parrots to thank.

Bolivia's Amazonian savannas are remarkable and dynamic ecosystems. These seasonally flooded grasslands are dotted with forest islands dominated by the motacú palm (Attalea princeps). These forest patches are an integral part of the local ecology and have thus received a lot of attention both culturally and scientifically. The dominance of motacú palm poses an intriguing question - what maintains them on the landscape?

The fruits of this palm are quite large and fleshy. Some have hypothesized that this represents an anachronism of sorts, with the large fruit having once been dispersed by now extinct Pleistocene megafauna. Despite this assumption, these forest islands persist. What's more, motacú palms still manage to germinate. Obviously there was more to this story than meets the theoretical eye. As it turns out, macaws seem to be the missing piece of this ecological puzzle. 

Researchers found that three species of macaw (Ara ararauna, A. glaucogularis, and A. severus) comprised the main seed dispersers of this dominant palm species. What's more, they manage to do so over great distances. You see, the palms offer up vast quantities of fleshy fruits but not much in the way of a good perch on which to eat them. Parrots such as macaws cannot take an entire seed down in one gulp. They must manipulate it with their beak and feet in order to consume the flesh. To do this they need to find a perch.

Suitable perches aren't always in the immediate area so the macaws take to the wing along with their seedy meals. Researchers found that these three macaw species will fly upwards of 1,200 meters to perch and eat. Far from being the seed predators they were assumed to be, the birds are actually quite good for the seeds. The fleshy outer covering is consumed and the seed itself is discarded intact. This suggests that preferred perching trees become centers of palm propagation and they have the parrots to thank. 

Indeed, seedling motacú palms are frequently found within 1 - 5 meters of the nearest perching tree. No other seed disperser even came close to the macaws. What's more, introduced cattle (thought to mimic the seed dispersing capabilities of some extinct megafauna) had a markedly negative effect on palm seed germination thanks to issues such as soil compaction, trampling, and herbivory. Taken together, this paints a radically different picture of the forces structuring this unique Amazonian community.

Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons

Further Reading: [1]