I would like to introduce you to quite possibly the strangest members of the Bromeliad family - those of the genus Brocchinia. Aside from the odd appearance and habits of this particular group, researchers have learned quite a bit about the Bromeliad family as a whole from studying this group. From their origins to their impressive radiation, Brocchinia offers us a window into the history of this charismatic family.
Brocchinia are considered sister to all other bromeliads. They were the first genus to diverge some 70 million years ago. Their center of origin can be traced back to the Guayana Shield, a region in the northeast corner of what is now South America. The earliest members of this group were likely terrestrial plants growing in nutrient poor areas. Surprisingly, the epiphytic nature of many bromeliad species we know and love today evolved more recently.
Since this time, Brocchinia has undergone an impressive adaptive radiation. Because they have remained specialists on nutrient poor soils, much of this radiation has to do with the evolution of nutrient acquisiton. Like its cousins, Brocchinia utilize a "tank" formed by their tightly clasped leaves.
Interestingly, at least two species of Brocchinia, (B. reducta and B. hechtioides) have taken this to the extreme and have adopted a carnivorous lifestyle. Their tall, columnar growth form coupled with slick, waxy leaves means insects can't keep a foothold and fall down into the tank. The plants sweeten the deal by luring them in with sweet secretions.
Whether or not this was a case of true carnivory was highly debated until 2005 when a group of researchers analyzed the chemical makeup of the liquid inside the tank. They discovered that they plant was secreting an enzyme called phosphatase, which actively digest hapless insects that fall in. A true carnivore indeed!
Others have even more peculiar evolutionary adaptations for nutrient acquisition. B. tatei, for example, was discovered to house nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria within its tank. Another species, B. acuminata, produces hallow chambers at the base of its leaves that house ant colonies. The ants pay rent via their nutrient-rich waste and voracious defense of their bromeliad home.
In total, this group is quite amazing. The amount of information we have been able to glean from studying Brocchinia has allowed us to shine a light on the whole bromeliad family. As we have also seen, the species within this group have quite the evolutionary history to tell in their own way. Brocchinia serves as a reminder to researchers blind to organismal study. We shouldn't have to study ecology at the expense of individual organisms. There is plenty to learn from both avenues of research.