Of Bladderworts & Birds

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Bladderworts are as beautiful as they are deadly. Though they are known the world over for their carnivorous bladder traps, their flowers are something to marvel at as well. Bladderworts flower in a range of colors from yellows to whites, purples to reds. What’s more, the variety of shapes and sizes among bladderwort flowers are incredible. Though the vast majority of bladderwort species rely on insects for pollination, at least one species appears to have co-opted a bird for its reproductive needs.

Red coats (Utricularia menziesii) are endemic to a few coastal regions of western Australia. They are not floating aquatic plants like many of their North American cousins, nor do they grow epiphytically like many tropical bladderworts. Red coats are terrestrial in their habit. Moreover, they live in habitats that dry up for good portions of the year. As the soils dry out, red coats die back into tiny corms in which they store energy during their dry dormancy that will fuel growth as soon as rains return and the surrounding soils are once again saturated.

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When conditions are right, red coats produce some of the most spectacular flowers of the entire genus. Though other species also produce red flowers, few produce such outlandishly bright blossoms. Moreover, the flowers themselves are rather robust structures complete with a long, tough nectar spur. Their color, form, and proximity to the ground has led more than one author to suggest that birds, not insects, are the main pollinators of this species.

Indeed, it appears that birds are what these flowers are attracting. Not just any bird will do either. It seems that the western spinebill (Acanthorhynchus superciliosus) is wonderfully primed to pollinate this lovely little carnivore. Red is a major attractant for birds and the fact that red coat flowers are presented so close to ground level places at the perfect height for ground-foraging spinebills. Also, the length, curvature, and nectar content of the nectar spur fits the spinebill beak nicely. Birds approach the plants on the ground and dip their long, curved beaks into the flower, picking up and depositing pollen as they go.

The western spinebill ( Acanthorhynchus superciliosus ). Note the curved beak.

The western spinebill (Acanthorhynchus superciliosus). Note the curved beak.

This isn’t the only bladderwort to be suspected of bird pollination. At least two others (Utricularia quelchii & Utricularia campbelliana) have been hypothesized to utilize hummingbirds for pollination. However, there is scant evidence for this. Pollination studies can be tricky like that. Without proper observation and study, one simply can’t confirm a particular pollination syndrome.

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

Further Reading: [1]

Can Cultivation Save the Canary Island Lotuses?

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Growing and propagating plants is, in my opinion, one of the most important skills humanity has ever developed. That is one of the reasons why I love gardening so much. Growing a plant allows you to strike up a close relationship with that species, which provides valuable insights into its biology. In today’s human-dominated world, it can also be an important step in preventing the extinction of some plants. Such may be the case for four unique legumes native to the Canary Islands provided it is done properly.

The Canary Islands are home to an impressive collection of plants in the genus Lotus, many of which are endemic. Four of those endemic Lotus species are at serious risk of extinction. Lotus berthelotii, L. eremiticus, L. maculatus, and L. pyranthus are endemic to only a few sites on this archipelago. Based on old records, it would appear that these four were never very common components of the island flora. Despite their rarity in the wild, at least one species, L. berthelotii, has been known to science since it was first described in 1881. The other three were described within the last 40 years after noting differences among plants being grown locally as ornamentals.

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All four species look superficially similar to one another with their thin, silvery leaves and bright red to yellow flowers that do a great impression of a birds beak. The beak analogy seems apt for these flowers as evidence suggests that they are pollinated by birds. In the wild, they exhibit a creeping habit, growing over rocks and down overhangs. It is difficult to assess whether their current distributions truly reflect their ecological needs or if they are populations that are simply hanging on in sites that provide refugia from the myriad threats plaguing their survival.

None of these four Lotus species are doing well in the wild. Habitat destruction, the introduction of large herbivores like goats and cattle, as well as a change in the fire regime have seen alarming declines in their already small populations. Today, L. eremiticus and L. pyranthus are restricted to a handful of sites on the island of La Palma and L. berthelotii and L. maculatus are restricted to the island of Tenerife. In fact, L. berthelotii numbers have declined so dramatically that today it is considered nearly extinct in the wild.

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Contrast this with their numbers in captivity. Whereas cultivation of L. eremiticus and L. pyranthus is largely restricted to island residents, L. berthelotii and L. maculatus and their hybrids can be found in nurseries all over the world. Far more plants exist in captivity than in their natural habitat. This fact has not been lost on conservationists working hard to ensure these plants have a future in the wild. However, simply having plants in captivity does not mean that the Canary Island Lotus are by any means safe.

One of the biggest issues facing any organism whose numbers have declined is that of reduced genetic diversity. Before plants from captivity can be used to augment wild populations, we need to know a thing or two about their genetic makeup. Because these Lotus can readily be rooted from cuttings, it is feared that most of the plants available in the nursery trade are simply clones of only a handful of individuals. Also, because hybrids are common and cross-pollination is always a possibility, conservationists fear that the individual genomes of each species may run the risk of being diluted by other species’ DNA.

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Luckily for the Canary Island Lotus species, a fair amount of work is being done to not only protect the remaining wild plants, but also augment existing as well as establish new populations. To date, many of the remaining plants are found within the borders of protected areas of the island. Also, new areas are being identified as potential places where small populations or individuals may be hanging on, protected all this time by their inaccessibility. At the same time, each species has been seed banked and entered into cultivation programs in a handful of botanical gardens.

Still, one of the best means of ensuring these species can enjoy a continued existence in the wild is by encouraging their cultivation. Though hybrids have historically been popular with the locals, there are enough true species in cultivation that there is still reason for hope. Their ease of cultivation and propagation means that plants growing in peoples’ gardens can escape at least some of the pressures that they face in the wild. If done correctly, ex situ cultivation could offer a safe haven for these unique species until the Canary Islands can deal with the issues facing the remaining wild populations.

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

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

Birds Work a Double Shift For Osmoxylon

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Plants go to great lengths to achieve pollination. Some can be tricky, luring in pollinators with a promise of food where there is none. Others, however, really sweeten the deal with ample food reserves. At least one genus of plants has taken this to the extreme, using the same techniques for pollination as it does for seed dispersal. I present to you the genus Osmoxylon.

Comprised of roughly 60 species spread around parts of southeast Asia and the western Pacific, the genus Osmoxylon hail from a variety of habitats. Some live in the deep shade of the forest understory whereas others prefer more open conditions. They range in size from medium sized shrubs to small trees and, upon flowering, their place within the family Araliaceae becomes more apparent.

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Look closely at the flowers, however, and you might notice a strange pattern. It would appear that as soon as flowers develop, the plant has already produced berries. How could this be? Are there cleistogamous flowers we aren't aware of? Not quite. The truth, in fact, is quite peculiar. Of the various characteristics of the genus, one that repeatedly stands out is the production of pseudo-fruits. As the fertile flowers begin to produce pollen, these fake fruits begin to ripen. There aren't any seed inside. In truth, I don't think they can technically be called fruits at all. So, why are they there?

Although actual observations will be required to say for sure, the running hypothesis is that these pseudo-fruits have evolved in response to the presence of birds. They are pretty fleshy and would make a decent meal. It is thought that as birds land on the umbel to eat these pseudo-fruits, they invariably pick up pollen in the process. The bird the exchanges pollen with every subsequent plant it visits. Thus, pollination is achieved.

The relationship with birds doesn't end here. Like other members of this family, pollination results in the formation of actual fruits full of seeds. Birds are known for their seed dispersal abilities and the Osmoxylon capitalize on that as well. As such, the reproductive input of their avian neighbors is thought to be two-fold. Not only are birds potentially great pollinators, they are also great seed dispersers, taking fruits far and wide and depositing them in nutrient-rich packets wherever they poop.

Photo Credits: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1]

A Peculiar Case of Bird Pollination

When we think of bird pollination, we often conjure images of a hummingbird sipping nectar from a long, tubular, red flower. Certainly the selection pressures brought about from entering into a pollination syndrome with birds has led to convergence in floral morphology across a wide array of different plant genera. Still, just when we think we have the natural world figured out, something new is discovered that adds more complexity into the mix. Nowhere is this more apparent than the peculiar relationship between an orchid and a bird native to South Africa.

The orchid in question is known scientifically as Disa chrysostachya. It is a bit of a black sheep of the genus. Whereas most Disa orchids produce a few large, showy flowers, this species produces a spike that is densely packed with minute flowers. They range from orange to red and, like most other bird pollinated flowers, produce no scent. 

Take the time to observe them in the field and you may notice that the malachite sunbird is a frequent visitor. The sunbirds perch themselves firmly on the spike and probe the shallow nectar spurs on each flower. At this point you may be thinking that the pollen sacs, or pollinia, of the orchid are affixed to the beak of the bird but, alas, you would be wrong. 

Closer inspection of the flowers reveal that the morphology and positioning of the pollinia are such that they simply cannot attach to the beak of the bird. The same goes for any potential insect visitors. The plant seems to have assured that only something quite specific can pick up the pollen. To see what is really going on, you would have to take a look at the sunbird's feet. 

That's right, feet. When a sunbird feeds at the flowers of D. chrysostachya, its feet position themselves onto the stiffened lower portion of the flower. This is the perfect spot to come into contact with the sticky pollinia. As the bird feeds, they pick up the pollinia on their claws! The next time the bird lands to feed, it will inevitably deposit that pollen. The orchids seemed to have benefited from the fact that once perched, sunbirds don't often reposition themselves on the flower spike. In this way, self pollination is minimized. A close relative, D. satyriopsis, has also appeared to enter into a pollination with sunbirds in a similar way. 

Though it may seem inefficient, research has shown that this pollination mechanism is quite successful for the orchid.The pollinia themselves stick quite strongly so that no amount of scuffing on branches or preening with beaks can dislodge them. Once pollination has been achieved, each flower is capable of producing thousands upon thousands of seeds.

Photo Credit: Johnson and Brown

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