Pollination Plasticity

Pollinators are great -- that is, unless they also feed upon the plant they are pollinating. In the arid regions of western North America, Nicotiana attenuata, sometimes referred to as coyote tobacco, has this very problem. 

Blooming at night, its white flowers are heavily scented, which attracts its pollinator, a species of hawkmoth known to science as Manduca quinquemaculata. Female hawkmoths do a little bit more than just grab a sip of nectar. Their larvae feed on members of the tobacco family and, as anyone with tomatoes can tell you, they have a voracious apatite. Visiting female moths use the meal break as a chance to lay their eggs. However, this does not have to be a death sentence for the plant. Researchers noticed a strange thing about N. attenuata plants that had feeding damage from hawkmoth caterpillars. Their flowers seemed to change.


And change they did. Coyote tobacco plants with caterpillars will start to produce flowers that open during the day, instead of at night. The plants also stopped producing a scent. What's more, the flowers didn't open very far either. What is the reason for these drastic changes? Are the plants stressed out from the caterpillar attack?

Not exactly. In fact, the answer is quite remarkable. As it it turns out, plants with caterpillars munching on them were intentionally shifting their entire reproductive strategy to avoid the larvae of their intended pollinators. Flowers that open during the day no longer attracted the attention of moths, which reduced the number of new eggs being laid. Instead, the flowers started attracting the attention of hummingbirds. Hummingbirds are pretty effective as pollinators and their offspring don't eat the plants that their parents feed on. 

Manduca quinquemaculata  larva

Manduca quinquemaculata larva

Manduca quinquemaculata  adult male

Manduca quinquemaculata adult male

So, how does the plant know when its being fed upon? Caterpillar spit. Chemicals in the saliva of the caterpillar trigger a chemical response within the plant that tells it to start ramping up defenses (of which nicotine is one). This signaling cascade also tells the plant to start producing day opening flowers instead of night opening flowers. It just goes to show you how a little attention to detail can uncover some amazing aspects of the world around us. 

Photo Credit: Danny Kessler, MPI chemische ├ľkologie, Wikimedia Commons

Further Reading: [1] [2]