The Fungus-Mimicking Mouse Plant

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The mouse plant (Arisarum proboscideum) is, to me, one of the most charming aroids in existence. Its small stature and unique inflorescence are a joy to observe. It is no wonder that this species has attained a level of popularity among those of us who enjoy growing oddball plants. Its unique appearance may be reason enough to appreciate this little aroid but its pollination strategy is sure to seal the deal.

The mouse plant is native to shaded woodlands in parts of Italy and Spain. It is a spring bloomer, hitting peak flowering around April. It has earned the name “mouse plant” thanks to the long, tail-like appendage that forms at the end of the spathe. That “tail” is the only part of the inflorescence that sticks up above the arrow-shaped leaves. The rest of the structure is presented down near ground level. From its stature and position, to its color, texture, and even smell, everything about the inflorescence is geared around fungal mimicry.

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The mouse plant is pollinated by fungus gnats. However, it doesn’t offer them any rewards. Instead, it has evolved a deceptive pollination syndrome that takes advantage of a need that all living things strive to attain - reproduction. To draw fungus gnats in, the mouse plant inflorescence produces compounds that are said to smell like fungi. Lured by the scent, the insects utilize the tail-like projection of the spathe as a sort of highway that leads them to the source.

Once the fungus gnats locate the inflorescence, they are presented with something incredibly mushroom-like in color and appearance. The only opening in the protective spathe surrounding the spadix and flowers is a tiny, dark hole that opens downward towards the ground. This is akin to what a fungus-loving insect would come to expect from a tiny mushroom cap. Upon entering, the fungus gnats are greeted with the tip of the spadix, which has come to resemble the texture and microclimate of the underside of a mushroom.

Anatomy of a mouse plant inflorescence  [SOURCE]

Anatomy of a mouse plant inflorescence [SOURCE]

This is exactly what the fungus gnats are looking for. After a round of courtship and mating, the fungus gnats set to work laying eggs on the tip of the spadix. Apparently the tactile cues are so similar to that of a mushroom that the fungus gnats simply don’t realize that they are falling victim to a ruse. Upon hatching, the fungus gnat larvae will not be greeted with a mushroomy meal. Instead, they will starve and die within the wilting inflorescence. The job of the adult fungus gnats is not over at this point. To achieve pollination, the plant must trick them into contacting the flowers themselves.

Both male and female flowers are located down at the base of the structure. As you can see in the pictures, the inflorescence is two-toned - dark brown on top and translucent white on the bottom. The flowers just so happen to sit nicely within the part of the spathe that is white in coloration. In making a bid to escape post-mating, the fungus gnats crawl/fly towards the light. However, because the opening in the spathe points downward, the lighted portion of the structure is down at the bottom with the flowers.

The leaves are the best way to locate these plants.

The leaves are the best way to locate these plants.

Confused by this, the fungus gnats dive deeper into the inflorescence and that is when they come into contact with the flowers. Male and female flowers of the mouse plants mature at the exact same time. That way, if visiting fungus gnats happen to be carrying pollen from a previous encounter, they will deposit it on the female flowers and pick up pollen from the male flowers all at once. It has been noted that very few fungus gnats have ever been observed within the flower at any given time so it stands to reason that with a little extra effort, they are able to escape and with any luck (for the plant at least) will repeat the process again with neighboring individuals.

The mouse plant does not appear to be self-fertile so only pollen from unrelated individuals will successfully pollinate the female flowers. This can be a bit of an issue thanks to the fact that plants also reproduce vegetatively. Large mouse plant populations are often made up of clones of a single individual. This may be why rates of sexual reproduction in the wild are often as low as 10 - 20%. Still, it must work some of the time otherwise how would such a sophisticated form of pollination syndrome evolve in the first place.

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

Further Reading: [1] [2]

A Unique Case of Floral Mimicry

Pollination is one of the major advantages flowering plants have over the rest of the botanical tree. With a few exceptions, flowers have cornered this market. It no doubt has played a significant role in their rise to dominance on the landscape. The importance of flowers is highlighted by the fact that they are costly structures. Because they don't photosynthesize, all plants take a hit on energy reserves when it comes time to flower. Sepals, petals, pollen, nectar, all of these take a lot of energy to produce which is why some plants cheat the system a bit. 

Sexual mimicry is one form of ruse that has evolved repeatedly. The flowers of such tricksters mimic receptive female insects waiting for a mate. The evolution of such a strategy taps into something far deeper in the mind of animals than food. It taps into the need to reproduce and that is one need animals don't readily forego. As such, sexually deceptive flowers usually do away with the production of costly substances such as nectar. They simply don't need it to attract their pollinators. 

By and large, the world of sexual mimicry in plants is one played out mainly by orchids. However, there exists an interesting exception to this rule. A daisy that goes by the scientific name Gorteria diffusa has evolved a sexually deceptive floral strategy of its own. Native to South Africa, this daisy is at home in its Mediterranean climate. It produces stunning orange flowers that very much look like those of a daisy. On certain petals of the ray florets, one will notice peculiar black spots. From region to region there seems to be a lot of variation in the expression of these spots but all are textured thanks to a complex of different cell types. 

The spots may seem like random patterns until the flowers are visited by their pollinator - a tiny bee-fly known scientifically as Megapalpus nitidus. With flies present, one can sort of see a resemblance. This would not be a mistake on the observers part. Indeed, when researchers removed or altered these spots, bee-fly visitation significantly decreased. Although this didn't seem to influence seed production, it nonetheless suggests that those spots are there for the flies. 

When researchers painted spots on to non-textured petals, the bee-flies ignored those as well. It appears that the texture of the spots makes a big difference to visiting flies. What's more, although female flies visited the flowers, a majority of the visits were by males. It appears that the presence of these spots is keying in on the mate-seeking and aggregation behavior of their bee-fly pollinators. Further investigation has revealed that the spots even reflect the same kind of UV light as the flies themselves, making the ruse all the more accurate. This case of sexual mimicry is unique among this family. No other member of the family Asteraceae exhibits such reproductive traits (that we know of). Although it doesn't seem like seed production is pollinator limited, it certainly increases the chance of cross pollination with unrelated individuals.

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

Further Reading: [1] [2]

Pseudoanthry

I learned a new word today - "pseudoanthery." This term applies to a structure or organ on a nectarless flower that mimics a dehiscent anther. To elaborate further, a dehiscent anther is one in which a capsule containing pollen breaks open to reveal the pollen inside. For example, think of the anthers of an Asiatic lily. Back to the topic at hand.

I quite like learning new things, especially as it applies to familiar friends. I was admiring the floral display of a rather tall cane begonia when a friend of mine came up to me and simply said "pseudoanthery." I didn't quite catch it the first time so I asked him to repeat it. It wasn't hard to guess the root meaning of the word - fake anther. Confusion set in when I pointed out that I was looking at the female flowers of a begonia. Thus, a teaching moment presented itself.

Though I adore Begonias and have a small handful growing in my house at all times, I never stopped to think much about their pollination. Without a doubt, they can be quite showy. Even the smaller species can put on quite a floral show. Rarely have I ever detected a scent from a Begonia bloom, nor have I ever detected nectar (though that's not to say either of those qualities don't exist). The point I am trying to make is that I couldn't quite figure out their strategy.

Sure, male flowers contain copious amounts of pollen. That is incentive enough to visit a male bloom. But what about the female flowers? Do they get away with not offering any sort of reward by simply being showy? Certainly that helps, however, female Begonia flowers sweeten the ruse with a bit of mimicry.

That is where the term pseudoanthery applies. Take a close look at the stigma of a begonia flower and you will be marveled by its intricate structure and bright coloration. As it turns out, the stigma is shaped in such a way as to mimic the pollen covered anthers of male flowers. Insects looking for protein rich pollen with visit the female flowers, realize it was all for naught, and move on. That is all the female flowers require. While the insect was busy searching for pollen, it is very likely that the bristly hairs on the stigma were able to pick up pollen grains from the insect's previous visit. With a little luck, that flower was a male begonia.

This ruse works best at large numbers. By producing lots of male flowers and considerably fewer female flowers, Begonias can ensure that the insects are not deterred by the lack of rewards. This has a double benefit for the plant as female flowers and seeds can be costly to produce.

Quite fascinating if I do say so myself. I have looked at countless Begonia flowers and not once did I question their structure. Just goes to show you that even old friends can teach us new things.

Further Reading: [1] [2]

The Orchid Mantis Might Not be so Orchid After All

Here we see a juvenile orchid mantis perched atop a man-made orchid cultivar that would not be found in the wild.

Here we see a juvenile orchid mantis perched atop a man-made orchid cultivar that would not be found in the wild.

The orchid mantis is a very popular critter these days, and rightly so. Native to southeast Asia, they are beautiful examples of how intricately the forces of natural selection can operate on a genome. The reasoning behind such mimicry is pretty apparent, right? The mantis mimics an orchid flower and thus, has easy access to unsuspecting prey.

Not so fast...

Despite its popularity as an orchid mimic, there is no evidence that this species is mimicking a specific flower. Most of the pictures you see on the internet are actually showing orchid mantids sitting atop cultivated Phalaenopsis or Dendrobium orchids that simply do not occur in the wild. Observations from the field have shown that the orchid mantis is frequently found on the flowers of Straits meadowbeauty (Melastoma polyanthum). A study done in 2013 looked at whether or not the mantids disguise offers an attractive stimulus to potential prey. Indeed, there is some evidence for UV absorption as well as convincing bilateral symmetry that is very flower-like. They also exhibit the ability to change their color to some degree depending on the background.

Orchid mantis nymphs are more brightly colored than adults.

Orchid mantis nymphs are more brightly colored than adults.

Despite our predilection for finding patterns (even when there are none) it is far more likely that this species has evolved to present a "generalized flower-like stimulus." In other words, they may simply succeed in tapping into pollinators' bias towards bright, colorful objects. We see similar strategies in non-rewarding flowering plants that simply offer a large enough stimulus that pollinators can't ignore them. The use of colored mantis models has provided some support for this idea. Manipulating the overall shape and color of these models had no effect on the number of pollinators attracted to them.

The most interesting aspect of all of this is that the most convincing (and most popular) mimicking the orchid mantis displays is during the juvenile phase. Indeed, most pictures circulating around the web of these insects are those of immature mantids. The adults tend to look rather drab, with long, brownish wing covers. However, they still maintain some aspects of the juvenile traits.

Adult orchid mantids take on a relatively drab appearance compared to their juvenile form.

Adult orchid mantids take on a relatively drab appearance compared to their juvenile form.


The fact of the matter is, we still don't know very much about this species. It is speculated that the mimicry is both for protection and for hunting. As O'Hanlon (2016) put it, "The orchid mantis' predatory strategy can be interpreted as a form of 'generalized food deception' rather than 'floral mimicry'." It just goes to show you how easily popular misconceptions can spread. Until more studies are performed, the orchid mantis will continue to remain a beautiful mystery.

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

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