Ancient Green Blobs

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

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

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

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

Photo Credits: [1] [2] 

Further Reading: [1]

Darwin's Slipper


Along the craggy peaks of the Andes from Chile into Argentinia, and down into Patagonia grows a strange alpine plant known scientifically as Calceolaria uniflora.  It goes by the common name of Darwin's Slipper as many attribute its discovery to Charles Darwin, however, this plant was first collected by French naturalist Philibert Commerson in 1767, 42 years before Darwin was even born. Regardless, C. uniflora is a remarkable little plant. It stands as an ornate example of a unique pollination syndrome, one that that is quite apt considering who discovered it. As with any strange flower, once you begin to ponder the significance of its morphology, you inevitably come to the same question; what on Earth pollinates it?


As a whole the genus Calceolaria is bee pollinated. Relying on what are known as "oil bees," most of the flowers in this genus produce hairs that secret oils that the female bees relish. Calceolaria uniflora is different from the rest in that it doesn't bother with oil production. Instead of producing flowers with a tube or a pouch, this species creates an almost alien-looking red and orange bloom with a bright white appendage on its lower lip. What is going on there? The answer to this strange riddle has a clue in where this species grows.

At high altitudes, oil-collecting bees are scarce. It is simply too cold and harsh for many insects to survive at such elevations. Instead, what are present are birds, specifically a species of seedsnipe. These little birds exist on a plant-based diet and spend a lot of their time holding territories and grazing on seeds and fruits of a handful of alpine plants. Researchers noticed that patches of Calceolaria uniflora growing around these birds seemed to have high levels of floral damage, specifically on the lower lip where the white appendage is located. In fact, the white appendage was often completely removed.

As it turns out, the seedsnipes regularly visit patches of these flowers and proceed to peck off and eat the white appendage. As the birds peck off these appendages, the anthers and stigma bash against the birds head. As it does, pollen is dusted onto the bird as well as onto the female parts of the flower. Thus pollination is achieved. But what's in it for the birds? As it turns out, when tested in the lab, researchers found these appendages to be high in sugars. The birds are in it for an easy, sugary meal.

When we think of birds as pollinators, we often think of hummingbirds or honeyeaters. The relationship between Calceolaria uniflora and the seedsnipe is rather outlandish in comparison but it certainly works for both species. The lack of insect pollinators has driven Calceolaria uniflora towards an alternative pollinator and quite a unique one at that!

Photo Credit: Julio Martinich (http://bit.ly/1TMiqk7)

Further Reading:
http://bit.ly/1OJCahs

The Rosulate Violas

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

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