Flowers of the Underworld

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New Zealand has some weird nature. It is amazing to see what an island free of any major terrestrial predators can produce. Unfortunately, ever since humans found their way to New Zealand, the unique ecology has suffered. One of the most unique plant and animal interactions in the world can be found on this archipelago, but for how much longer is the question.

The story will start with a species of bat. In fact, this bat is New Zealand's only native terrestrial mammal. That's right, I said terrestrial. The New Zealand lesser short-tailed bat spends roughly 40% of its time foraging for insects on the ground. It has lots of specialized adaptations that I won't go into here but the cool part is these bats forage in packs, stirring up insects from the leaf litter until they reach a level of feeding frenzy that I thought was reserved only for sharks or piranhas. Along with using echo location, they also have a highly developed sense of smell. This is important for our second player in this forest drama. 

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Enter Dactylanthus taylorii, the wood rose. This plant is not a rose at all but rather a member of the tropical family Balanophoraceae. More importantly, it is parasitic. It produces no chlorophyll and lives most of it's life underground, wrapped around the roots of its host tree. Every once in a while a small patch of flowers breaks through the dirt and just barely rises above the leaf litter. This gives this species its Māori name of pua o te reinga or pua reinga, which translates to "flower of the underworld." The flowers emit a musky, sweet smell that attracts the ground foraging bats.

The bats are one of the only pollinators left for the wood rose. They sniff out the flowers and dine on the nectar, all the while being dusted with pollen. Recently, it has been found that New Zealand's giant ground parrot, the kakapo, is also believed to have been a pollinator of this plant. Sadly, the kakapo only exists on some of the smaller islands of the archipelago.

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Both the wood rose and the New Zealand lesser short-tailed bat are considered at risk of extinction. When modern man came to these islands they brought with them the general suite of mammalian invasives like rats, mongoose, cats, and pigs, all of which are exacting a major toll on the native ecology. The plants and animals of New Zealand have not shared an evolutionary history with such aggressive mammalian invaders and thus have no adaptations for coping with their sudden presence. The future of the wood rose, the New Zealand lesser short-tailed bat, and the kakapo, along with many other uniquely New Zealand species are for now uncertain.

Photo Credits: Joseph Dalton Hooker (1859), Wikimedia Commons, and Nga Manu Nature Reserve (http://www.ngamanu.co.nz/)

Further Reading:

http://phys.org/news/2012-10-flightless-parrots-burrowing-parasitic-hades.html

http://www.doc.govt.nz/documents/science-and-technical/Sfc019.pdf

http://www.edgeofexistence.org/mammals/species_info.php?id=56

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]