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]

Unlikely Allies

On the Balearic Islands of Spain, an interesting relationship has developed between a plant and an animal. What's more, this relationship seems to have developed relatively recently in the history of these two species. The players in this story are the dead horse arum (Helicodiceros muscivorus) and an unsuspecting lizard known as Lilford’s wall lizard (Podarcis lilfordi).

Podarcis lilfordi is a lot like other fence lizards. They spend their days basking in the sun’s warmth and hunting for insect prey. They also have a tendency to feed on nectar and pollen, making them important pollinators of a handful of plant species around the island. For the dead horse arum, however, its not about pollination.

Like most members of its family, the dead horse arum relies on trickery for sex. As its common name suggests, the dead horse arum both looks and smells like rotting meat. Unsuspecting flies looking for a meal and a place to lay their eggs find the dead horse arum quite attractive in this regard. The plant even steps up its game a bit by producing its own heat. This helps volatilize its smell as well as to make it a cozy place worth investigating. Studies have found that during the peak flowering period, the inflorescence can be upwards of 24 °C (50 °F) warmer than its surroundings.

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As one would expect, this has caught the attention of the cold blooded lizards. Enticed by the heat source, lizards basking on the spathe quickly realize that the plant is also a great place to hunt. Flies attracted to and trapped by the flowers make an easy meal. On the surface this would seem counterproductive for the dead horse arum. What good is an animal hanging around that eats its pollinators?

The relationship doesn't end here though. At some point in recent history, a handful of lizards figured out that the seeds of the dead horse arum also make a great meal. This behavior quickly spread through the population to the point that Podarcis lilfordi regularly break open the seed heads and consume the fleshy berries within. Here's the catch, seeds that have passed through a lizards gut are twice as likely to germinate.

Researchers have been studying this interaction since 1999. Since then, the dead horse arum has gone from being relatively rare on the island (~5,000 individuals per hectare) to a density of roughly 30,000 individuals per hectare during the 6 year span of the study! Even though the lizards eat their pollinators, the dead horse arums of Aire Island have nonetheless benefited from interactions with their cold blooded companions.

Sadly, this novel relationship may not last too long. The introduction of cats and rats to the islands has drastically reduced the population of these lizards to the point that the IUCN has listed them as an endangered species. Research will be needed to see if the dead horse arum follows in their wake.

Photo Credit: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1] [2]