Shhhh... Let Him Finish

Sexual deception is rampant in the orchid family. Orchid genera all over the world produce flowers that trick sexually charged male insects into failed mating attempts. The orchids go to great lengths to resemble females both in appearance and smell. Indeed, many sexually deceptive orchid species emit odors that precisely mimic the pheromones of specific insect species. 

In many instances, the orchids ruse is so powerful that male insects will often preferentially visit the flower over an actual female. For many of the sexually deceptive orchids, all that is required is the male to pay a visit. No attempt at copulation is necessary, though that doesn't stop vigorous attempts. Because of this, it is easy to see how the minute cost incurred to the insects is not enough to drive evolution away from deception. However, there is a group of tongue orchids (genus Cryptostylis) from Australia that seem to throw a wrench into this finely tuned system.... or do they?

The tongue orchids rely on deceiving male wasps in the genus Lissopimpla into mating with their flowers. As mentioned above, the males simply cannot resist the attempt. However, unlike many other reported cases, the male wasps actually mate to completion, depositing their sperm onto the flower. This should be disastrous for the wasps since males not only prefer flowers to wasp females, but they also waste their precious few mating attempts. How could this have evolved?

Most sexually deceptive orchids rely on bees and wasps (family Hymenoptera) for their pollination. Thus, the answer to this evolutionary conundrum lies in the mating system of these insects. Queens are genetically haplodiploid. I will spare you the details on that but basically what it means for Hymenoptera is that female offspring are produced via fertilized eggs whereas male offspring are produced via unfertilized eggs. 

The orchids have (unknowingly of course) tapped into this system to their benefit. If by mating with the flower and not a female wasp meant that no offspring were produced, this system surely would not have evolved to the level that it has. Instead, female wasps that have not been mated with or received less sperm than usual end up producing a higher amount of male offspring.

The orchids are effectively skewing the sex ratio of their pollinators! "How is this a sustainable system?" you may be asking. Well, by causing female wasps to produce more males, the orchids are ensuring that there will be more naive males in the population the next time they are in bloom. Also, by skewing the sex ratio towards males, there are now fewer females to mate with so that males become less choosy and more readily mate with orchids. Finally, with more sexually charged males flying around, each female has a greater chance of being fertilized. Because of the unique mating system that has evolved in Hymenoptera, the orchids have thus been able to evolve this pollination strategy with little harm to the pollinators.

Photo Credit: photobitz

Further Reading:

A Case of Sexual Fluidity in the Plant World


In humans, sex is determined at fertilization. The embryo receives either an X or a Y chromosome. Many other organisms have their sex determined in a manner similar to this as well. The case with plants is not so rigid. Many plants produce both male and female parts on the same flower, others have flowers that are either male or female, while some can change their sex throughout their lifetime. The latter is quite interesting and offers an insight into the differences in maleness and femaleness. 

The green dragon (Arisaema dracontium) is an arum related to jack-in-the-pulpit. It is wide spread throughout the east but declining in much of its northern range. This species produces a single inflorescence that can be purely male, both male and female, or, in some rare cases, entirely female. The mechanism for this has been a subject of interest for many botanists as it does not seem to be dictated solely by genetics. It has been discovered that any given plant may switch up its flowering strategy from year to year.

What researchers have found is that male flowers are most often produced in younger plants as well as plants that are stressed. In years where environmental conditions are not as conducive to survival or if the plants have not had enough time to build up energy reserves, it is not uncommon to find only male plants. This is advantageous since male flowers and pollen are a lot less costly to produce than ovaries. Also, the plant does not have to allocate resources into developing seeds. In good years and also in older, larger plants, inflorescence are produced that are both male and female. If the plants are less stressed and large enough, more energy can be allocated to seed production. In some rare cases, very large plants have been known to produce only female flowers. This seems to be a strategy that is adopted only under the best of conditions. 

It should be noted that whereas there seems to be a threshold for environmental conditions as well as plant size in determining what kinds of flowers will be produced, each green dragon population seems to vary. In essence there is some genetic determination for how the plant will respond in any given year but this is where teasing the gene environment out of the actual environment gets tricky. Studying these plants is giving us more insight into the advantages and disadvantages of each sex as well as helping to inform how sensitive species like the green dragon will respond in a changing climate. 


Further Reading:

Flower Color Beyond What We Can See


Despite their aesthetic appeal, flowers are not here to dazzle us. While they have enticed us to spread the offspring of many species around the globe, flowers have one purpose and one purpose only - sex. 

There are many different and even tricky ways flowers manage pollination. The most common and by far the most widely utilized is the use of insects. Though flowers look like they have done everything they can to attract pollinators, we can only see a narrow range of the electromagnetic spectrum. What we see as visible light is only a mere fraction of what is really out there. 

Many insects see well into the ultraviolet range and this has caused some very interesting evolutionary adaptations in flowers to attract insects to their business parts. When viewed with UV cameras, many species of plants have seemed to have drawn maps and arrows to their anthers and stigmas. It is amazing to witness a species of say Potentilla with, to us, solid yellow petals in this manner. The patterns that appear are striking! There are far too many examples to go into detail on this subject so instead, here is a great website to show you some examples

Photo Credit: Kevin Collins