The Gravel Ghost

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Look closely or you might miss it. The gravel ghost (Atrichoseris platyphylla) is a master of disguise. At home in a small pocket of southwestern North America, this wonderful member of the aster family only puts on a show when rains offer the parched landscape a momentary reprieve.

The gravel ghost is the only member of the genus Atrichoseris. It is different enough from the rest of the chicory tribe (Cichorieae) to warrant its monotypic status. The gravel ghost is a winter annual meaning its seeds germinate at some point in the fall and the plant spends most of the winter putting on growth. As you can probably imagine, life in this corner of the world is pretty tough. Rain is sparse to non-existent and many plants teeter on the edge of desiccation. The fleshy, semi-succulent leaves of the gravel ghost likely store just enough water to offer some insurance against prolonged drought.

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As if drying up wasn’t enough for this plant, the desert’s compliment of hungry herbivores are constantly on the lookout for any plant remotely alive that can offer sustenance. All it takes is a few encounters with the gravel ghost to understand how this plant manages to avoid as much attention as possible. As its common name suggests, this species blends in with the surrounding soil to an extreme degree. From what I can gather, there appears to be a lot of variation in gravel ghost leaf color depending on where the population is growing.

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Some are mostly green whereas others take on a mottled grey hue. Still others seem to have settled on a mixture of browns. It seems that no matter the substrate, the gravel ghost will do its best to blend in. Personally, I would love to see someone investigate what kind of genetic or environmental controls dictate leaf color in this species. It is fascinating to think about how plants can disguise themselves against herbivores.

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Starting in late winter and early spring, the gravel ghost needs to complete its annual life cycle. When rains punctuate the drought, the gravel ghost sends up a spindly inflorescence tipped with a few flower heads. If they are lucky, some stalks will avoid being nipped off by sheep and rabbits. Those that do put on quite a floral display. Each head or ‘capitulum’ explodes with clusters of bright white ray flowers. Only at this point does its affinity with the chicory tribe become apparent.

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The need for such a high impact floral display has everything to do with being an annual. There is only limited time for pollination and seed set. Each gravel ghost must produce enough seeds to enure that at least some survive. They simply don’t have multiple seasons to reproduction. Luckily its a member of the aster family and the opportunity for seed production is usually relatively high. With any luck, plenty of pollinators will find these plants tucked in among rocks and gravel and the process will begin again come that fall.

Photo Credit: Joey (www.instagram.com/crime_pays_but_botany_doesnt)

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



Growing Camouflage

A garden on the back of a weevil living a humid Chilean rainforest.

A garden on the back of a weevil living a humid Chilean rainforest.

Lots of us will be familiar with organisms like decorator crabs that utilize bits and pieces of their environment, especially living sea anemones, as a form of camouflage and protection. Examples of terrestrial insects attaching bits and pieces of lichens to their body are not unheard of either. However, there are at least two groups of arthropods that take their camouflage to a whole new level by actively growing miniature gardens on their bodies.

Little is known about these garden-growing arthropods. To date, these miniature gardens have only been reported on a few species of weevil in the genus Gymnopholus as well as a species of millipede called Psammodesmus bryophorus. Coined epizoic symbiosis, it is thought that these gardens serve as a form of protection by camouflaging the gardeners against the backdrop of their environment.

Bryophytes on a  Psammodesmus bryophorus  male.

Bryophytes on a Psammodesmus bryophorus male.

Indeed, both groups of arthropods frequent exposed areas. What is most remarkable about this relationship is that these plants were not placed on the carapace from elsewhere in the environment. Instead, they have been actively growing there from the beginning. Closer inspection of the cuticle of these arthropods reveals unique structural adaptations like pits and hairs that provide favorable microclimates for spores to germinate and grow.

The plant communities largely consist of mosses and liverworts. At least 5 different liverwort families are represented and at least one family of moss. Even more remarkable is the fact that even these small botanical communities are enough to support a miniature ecosystem of their own. Researchers have found numerous algae such as diatoms, lichens, and a variety of fungi growing amidst the mosses and liverworts. These in turn support small communities of mites. It appears that an entire unknown ecosystem lives on the backs of these mysterious arthropods.

FIGURE 39. Elytral base of Gymnopholus (Niphetoscapha) nitidus with exudates. FIGURES 40a–b. Gymnopholus (Niphetoscapha) inexspectatus sp. n., live specimen with incrustrations of algae and lichens; photographs M. Wild, Mokndoma.  [SOURCE]

FIGURE 39. Elytral base of Gymnopholus (Niphetoscapha) nitidus with exudates. FIGURES 40a–b. Gymnopholus (Niphetoscapha) inexspectatus sp. n., live specimen with incrustrations of algae and lichens; photographs M. Wild, Mokndoma. [SOURCE]

There is still much to be learned about this symbiotic relationship. Although camouflage is the leading hypothesis, no work has been done to actually investigate the benefits these arthropods receive from actively growing these miniature gardens on their backs. Mysteries still abound. For instance, in the case of the millipede, gardens are found more frequently on the backs of males than on the backs of females. Could it be that males spend more time searching their environment and thus benefit from the added camouflage? Only further research will tell.

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

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