Cockroaches & Unexpected Partnerships

Say "cockroach" and most people will start to squirm. These indefatigable insects are maligned the world over because of a handful of species that have settled in quite nicely among human habitats. The world of cockroaches is far more diverse than most even care to realize, and where they occur naturally, these insects provide important ecological services. For instance, over the last decade or so, researchers have added pollination and seed dispersal to the list of cockroach activities. 

That's right, pollination and seed dispersal. It may seem odd to think of roaches partaking in such interactions but a study published in 2008 provides some of the first evidence that roaches are doing more with plants than eating their decaying tissues. After describing a new species of Clusia in French Guiana, researchers set out to investigate what, if anything, was pollinating it. The plant was named Clusia sellowiana and its flowers emitted a strange scent. 

Cockroach pollinating  C. sellowiana

Cockroach pollinating C. sellowiana

The source of this scent was the chemical acetoin. It seemed to be a rather attractive scent as a small variety of insects were observed visiting the flowers. However, only one insect seemed to be performing the bulk of pollination services for this new species - a small cockroach called Amazonia platystylata. It turns out that the roaches are particularly sensitive to acetoin and although they don't have any specific anatomical features for transferring pollen, their rough exoskeleton nonetheless picks up and deposits ample amounts of the stuff. 

It would appear that C. sellowiana has entered into a rather specific relationship with this species of cockroach. Although this is only the second documentation of roach pollination, it certainly suggests that more attention is needed. This Clusia isn't alone in its interactions with cockroaches either. As I hinted above, roaches can now be added to the list of seed dispersers of a small parasitic plant native to Japan. 

 (A) M. humile fruit showing many minute seeds embedded in the less juicy pulp. (B) Fallen fruits. (C) Blattella nipponica feeding on the fruit. (D) Cockroach poop with seeds. (E) Stained cockroach-ingested seeds

Monotropastrum humile looks a lot like Monotropa found growing in North America. Indeed, these plants are close cousins, united under the family Ericaceae. Interestingly enough, it was only recently found that camel crickets are playing an important role in the seed dispersal of this species. However, it looks like they aren't the only game in town. Researchers have also found that a forest dwelling cockroach called Blattella nipponica serves as a seed disperser as well. 

The roaches were observed feeding on the fruits of this parasitic plant, consuming pulp and seed alike. What's more, careful observation of their poop revealed that seeds of M. humile passed through the digestive tract unharmed. Cockroaches can travel great distances and therefore may provide an important service in distributing the seeds of a rather obscure parasitic plant. To think that this is an isolated case seems a bit naive. It seems to me like we should pay a little more attention to what cockroaches are doing in forests around the world. 

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

Further Reading: [1] [2]

Are Crickets Dispersing Seeds of Parasitic Plants?

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Parasitic plants lead a rather unique lifestyle. Many have foregone photosynthesis entirely by living off fungi or their photosynthetic neighbors. Indeed, there are many anatomical and physiological adaptations that are associated with making a living parasitically. Whether they are full parasites or only partial, one thing that many parasitic plants have in common are tiny, dust-like seeds. Their reduced size and thin seed coats are generally associated with wind dispersal, however, there are always exceptions to the rule. Recent evidence has demonstrated that a handful of parasitic plants have evolved in response to a rather unique seed dispersal agent - camel crickets.

A research team based out of Japan recently published a paper describing a rather intriguing seed dispersal situation involving three species of parasitic plants (Yoania amagiensis - Orchidaceae, Monotropastrum humile - Ericaceae, and Phacellanthus tubiflorus - Orobanchaceae). These are all small, achlorophyllous herbs that either parasitize trees directly through their roots or they parasitize the mycorrhizal fungi associated with said trees. What's more, each of these species are largely inhabitants of the dense, shaded understory of rich forests.

These sorts of habitats don't lend well to wind dispersal. The closed forest canopy and dense understory really limits wind flow. It would appear that these three plant species have found away around this issue. Each of these plants invest in surprisingly fleshy fruits for their parasitic lifestyle. Also, their seeds aren't as dusk-like as many of their relatives. They are actually quite fleshy. This is odd considering the thin margins many parasitic plants live on. Any sort of investment in costly tissues must have considerable benefits for the plants if they are to successfully get their genes into the next generation.

Fleshy fruits like this are usually associated with a form of animal dispersal called endozoochory. Anyone that has ever found seed-laden bird poop understands how this process works. Still, simply getting an animal to eat your seeds isn't necesarly enough for successful dispersal. Seeds must survive their trip through the gut and come out the other end relatively in tact for the process to work. That is where a bit of close observation came into play.

After hours of observation, the team found that the usual frugivorous suspects such as birds and small mammals showed little to no interest in the fruits of these parasites. Beetles were observed munching on the fruits a bit but the real attention was given by a group of stumpy-looking nocturnal insects collectively referred to as camel crickets. Again, eating the fruits is but one step in the process of successful seed dispersal. The real question was whether or not the seeds of these parasites survived their time inside either of these insect groups. To answer this question, the team employed feeding trials.

They compared seed viability by offering up fruits to beetles and crickets both in the field and back in the lab. Whereas both groups of insects readily consumed the fruits and seeds, only the crickets appeared to offer the greatest chances of a seed surviving the process. Beetles never pooped out viable seeds. The strong mandibles of the beetles fatally damaged the seeds. This was not the case for the camel crickets. Instead, these nocturnal insects frequently pooped out tens to hundreds of healthy, viable seeds. Considering the distances the crickets can travel as well as their propensity for enjoying similar habitats as the plants, this stacks up to potentially be quite a beneficial interaction. 

The authors are sure to note that these results do not suggest that camel crickets are the sole seed dispersal agents for these plants. Still, the fact that they are effective at moving large amounts of seeds is tantalizing to say the least. Taken together with other evidence such as the fact that the fruits of these plants often give off a fermented odor, which is known to attract camel crickets, the fleshy nature of their fruits and seeds, and the fact that these plants present ripe seed capsules at or near the soil surface suggests that crickets (and potentially other insects) may very well be important factors in the reproductive ecology of these plants.

Coupled with previous evidence of cricket seed dispersal, it would appear that this sort of relationship between plants and crickets is more widespread than we ever imagined. It is interesting to note that relatives of both the plants in this study and the camel crickets occur in both temperate and tropical habitats around the globe. We very well could be overlooking a considerable component of seed dispersal ecology via crickets. Certainly more work is needed.

Photo Credits: [1]

Further Reading: [1] [2]

Who Pollinates the Flame Azalea?

By and large, one of the most endearing aspects of doing research in Southern Appalachia are the myriad Ericaceous species you inevitably encounter. Throughout the growing season, their flowers paint the mountainsides in a symphony of color. One of my favorite species to encounter is the flame azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum).

This shrubby spectacle is a common occurrence where I work and its flowers, which range from bright yellows to deep orange and even red, put on a show that lasts a couple of weeks. It's not just me who enjoys the flowers either. Countless insects can be seen flitting to and from each blossom, sucking up rich reserves of nectar and pollen. It is interesting to watch a bee visit these flowers. Their outlandishly long anthers and style seem to be mostly out of reach for these smaller pollinators.

Bees attempting to grab some pollen look outlandishly clumsy in their attempts. What's more, small insects only seem to be able to get either nectar or pollen on any given visit. Rarely if ever do they make contact with the right floral parts that would result in effective pollination. Indeed, I am not the only person to have noticed this. Despite being visited by a wide array of insect species, only large butterflies seem capable to pollinating the flame azaleas stunning blooms.

The mechanism by which this happens is quite interesting. The reason small insects do not effectively pollinate these flowers has to do with the position of the anthers and style. Sticking far out from the center of the flower, they are too widely spaced to be contacted by small insect visitors. Instead, the only insects capable to transferring pollen from anthers to stigma are large butterflies. What is most strange about this relationship is that it all hinges on the size of the butterflies wings.

Only two species of butterfly, the eastern tiger swallowtail and the orange spangled fritillary, were observed to possess the right wing size and placement to achieve effective pollination for the flame azalea (though I suspect other larger species do so as well). This is quite unique as this is the only report of wing-mediated pollen transfer in northern temperate regions. The research team that discovered this noted that pollen transfer was greatest with the eastern tiger swallowtail, which is a voracious nectar hunter during the summer months.

Despite their popularity in pollinator gardens, butterflies are often considered poor pollinators. That being said, pollen transfer via wing surfaces has been a largely overlooked mechanism of pollination. Coupled with a handful of reports from tropical regions, this recent finding suggests that we must take a closer look at plant pollinator interactions, especially for plants that produce flowers with highly exerted anthers and stigmas. As the authors of the study put it, "transfer of pollen by butterfly wings may not be a rare event."

Photo Credit: [1]

Further Reading: [1]

Lizard Helpers

The beauty of Tasmania's honeybush, Richea scoparia, is equally matched by its hardiness. At home across alpine areas of this island, this stout Ericaceous shrub has to contend with cold temperatures and turbulent winds. The honeybush is superbly adapted to these conditions with its compact growth, and tough, pointy leaves. Even its flowers are primed for its environment. They emerge in dense spikes and are covered by a protective casing comprised of fused petals called a "calyptra." Such adaptations are great for protecting the plant and its valuable flowers from such brutal conditions but how does this plant manage pollination if its flowers are closed off to the rest of the world? The answer lies in a wonderful little lizard known as the snow skink (Niveoscincus microlepidotus).

The snow skink is not a pollinator. Far from it. All the snow skink wants is access to the energy rich nectar contained within the calyptra. In reality, the snow skink is a facilitator. You see, the calyptra may be very good at shielding the developing flower parts from harsh conditions, but it tends to get in the way of pollination. That is where the snow skink comes in. Attracted by the bright coloration and the nectar inside, the snow skink climbs up to the flower spike and starts eating the calyptra. In doing so, the plants reproductive structures are liberated from their protective sheath. 

Once removed, the flowers are visited by a wide array of insect pollinators. In fact, research shows that this is the only mechanism by which these plants can successfully outcross with their neighbors. Not only does the removal of the calyptra increase pollination for the honeybush, it also aids in seed dispersal. Experiments have shown that leaving the calyptra on resulted in no seed dispersal. The dried covering kept the seed capsules from opening. When calyptras are removed, upwards of 87% of seeds were released successfully. 

Although several lizard species have been identified as pollinators and seed dispersers, this is some of the first evidence of a reptilian pollination syndrome that doesn't actually involve a lizard in the act of pollination. It is kind of bizarre when you think about it. As if pollination wasn't strange enough in requiring a third party for sexual reproduction to occur, here is evidence of a fourth party required to facilitate the action in the first place. It may not be just snow skinks that are involved either. Evidence of birds removing the calyptra have also been documented. Whether its bird or lizard, this is nonetheless a fascinating coevolutionary relationship in response to cold alpine conditions. 

Photo Credits: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1]