Early Spring Botanizing

SURPRISE!

Many have commented that a video component was lacking from the hiking podcasts. I have teamed up with filmmaker/producer Grant Czadzeck (www.grantczadzeck.com) to bring you a visual botanizing experience. I'm not sure how regular this will become but let us know what you think. In the mean time, please enjoy this early spring hike in central Illinois.

Nature's Radar

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Are you sitting down? You may want to before you read this. The relationship I am about to tell you about is pretty amazing. Coevolution is never a dull topic and the following example may be one of the coolest in the living world. 

Meet Marcgravia evenia. This vining plant species is native to Cuba and, like other members of its genus, relies on bats for pollination. This is nothing new. Many plant species utilize bats as pollen vectors. Bat pollinated flowers are often quite fragrant, using powerful odors to tap into the bats keen sense of smell. Marcgravia evenia is different though. This tropical vine taps into another batty sense, echolocation. 

Right above the flowers is a dish-shaped leaf. This leaf functions as a reflector for the bats sonar! Indeed, when tested, bats were twice as likely to find plants with these dish-shaped leaves than they were if the leaves were removed. This is an incredible coevolutionary adaptation! Because the vines are rare in the wild, anything that would increase the likelihood of a bat visitation would incur a considerable selective advantage. The dish-shaped leaves do just that. According to the authors of the paper, "the leaf's echoes fulfilled requirements for an effective beacon, that is, they were strong, multidirectional, and had a recognizable invariant echo signature." Nature never fails to amaze!

Photo Credit: Ralph Simon

Further Reading:

http://www.sciencemag.org/content/333/6042/631

A North American Cycad and its Butterfly

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Most of us here in North America probably know cycads mainly from those encountered in botanical gardens or as the occasional houseplant. However, if you want to see a cycad growing in the wild, you don't have to leave North America to do so. One must only travel to parts of Georgia and Florida where the coontie can be found growing in well drained sandy soils. 

Known scientifically as Zamia integrifolia, the coontie is definitely your typical cycad, just on a smaller scale. Plants are either male or female and, like all gymnosperms, they produce cones. Here in the United States, the coontie is considered near threatened. Decades of habitat destruction and poaching have caused serious declines in wild populations. This has come at a great cost to at least one other organism as well.

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Thought to be extinct for over 20 years, a butterfly known as the atala (Eumaeus atala) require this lovely little cycad to complete their lifecycle. Like all cycads, the coontie produces a toxin known as "cycasin." Just as monarchs become rather distasteful to predators by feeding on milkweeds during their larval stage, so too do the larvae of the atala. The brightly contrasting colors of both the caterpillars and the adults let potential predators know that messing with them isn't going to be a pleasant experience. The reason for its decline in the wild is due to the loss of the coontie. 

Rediscovered only recently, populations of this lovely butterfly are starting to rebound. Caterpillars of the atala are voracious eaters and a small group of them can quickly strip a coontie of its foliage. For this reason, large populations of coontie are needed to support a viable breeding population of the atala. The coontie is becoming a popular choice for landscaping, especially in suburban areas of southeastern Florida, which is good news for the atala. As more and more people plant coonties on their property, more and more caterpillars are finding food to eat. This just goes to show you the benefits of planting natives!

An atala caterpillar

An atala caterpillar

Photo Credit: [1] [2] [3]

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