A New Case of Lizard Pollination from South Africa

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With its compact growth habit and small, inconspicuous flowers tucked under its leaves, it seems like Guthriea capensis doesn’t want to be noticed. Indeed, it has earned itself the common name of '“hidden flower.” That’s not to say this plant is unsuccessful. In fact, it seems to do just fine tucked in among high-elevation rock crevices of its home range along the Drakensberg escarpment of South Africa. Despite its cryptic nature, something must be pollinating these plants and recent research has finally figured that out. It appears that the hidden flower has a friend in some local reptiles.

Lizard pollination is not unheard of ([1] & [2]), however, it is by no means a common pollination syndrome. This could have something to do with the fact that we haven’t been looking. Pollination studies are notoriously tricky. Just because something visits a flower does not mean its an effective pollinator. To investigate this properly, one needs ample hours of close observation and some manipulative experiments to get to the bottom of it. Before we get to that, however, its worth getting to know this strange plant in a little more detail.

The hidden flower is a member of an obscure family called Achariaceae. Though a few members have managed to catch our attention economically, most genera are poorly studied. The hidden flower itself appears to be adapted to high elevation environments, hence its compact growth form. By hugging the substrate, this little herb is able to avoid the punishing winds that characterize montane habitats. Plants are dioecious meaning individuals produce either male or female flowers, never both. The most interesting aspect of its flowers, however, are how inconspicuous they are.

The hidden flower ( Guthriea capensis )  in situ .

The hidden flower (Guthriea capensis) in situ.

Flowers are produced at the base of the plant, out of site from most organisms. They are small and mostly green in color except for the presence of a few bright orange glands near the base of the style, deep within the floral tube. What they lack in visibility, they make up for in nectar and smell. Each flower produced copious amounts of sticky, sugar-rich nectar. They are also scented. Taken together, these traits usually signal a pollination syndrome with tiny rodents but this assumption appears to be wrong.

Based on hours of video footage and a handful of clever experiments, a team of researchers from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the University of the Free State have been able to demonstrate that lizards, not mammals, birds, or insects are the main pollinators of this cryptic plant. Two species of lizard native to this region, Pseudocordylus melanotus and Tropidosaura gularis, were the main floral visitors over the duration of the study period.

Pseudocordylus melanotus

Pseudocordylus melanotus

Tropidosaura gularis

Tropidosaura gularis

Visiting lizards would spend time lapping up nectar from several flowers before moving off and in doing so, picked up lots of pollen in the process. Being covered in scales means that pollen can have a difficult time sticking to the face of a reptile but the researchers believe that this is where the sticky pollen comes into play. It is clear that the pollen adheres to the lizards’ face thanks to the fact that they are usually covered in sticky nectar. By examining repeated feeding attempts on different flowers, they also observed that not only do the lizards pick up plenty of pollen, they deposit it in just the right spot on the stigma for pollination to be successful. Insect visitors, on the other hand, were not as effective at proper pollen transfer.

Conspicuously absent from the visitation roster were rodents. The reason for this could lie in some of the compounds produced within the nectar. The team found high levels of a chemical called safranal, which is responsible for the smell of the flowers. Safranal is also bitter to the taste and it could very well serve as a deterrent to rodents and shrews. More work will be needed to confirm this hypothesis. Whatever the case, safranal does not seem to deter lizards and may even be the initial cue that lures them to the plant in the first place. Tongue flicking was observed in visiting lizards, which is often associated with finding food in other reptiles.

Male flower (a) and female flower (b). Note the presence of the orange glands at the base.

Male flower (a) and female flower (b). Note the presence of the orange glands at the base.

Another interesting observation is that the color of the floral tube and the orange glands within appear to match the colors of one of the lizard pollinators (Pseudocordylus subviridis ). Is it possible that this is further entices the lizards to visit the flowers? Other reptile pollination systems have demonstrated that lizards appear to respond well to color patterns for which they already have some sort of sensory bias. Is it possible that these flowers evolved in response to such a bias? Again, more work will be needed to say for sure.

By excluding vertebrates from visiting the flowers, the team was able to show that indeed lizards appear to be the main pollinators of these plants. Without pollen transfer, seed set is reduced by 95% wheres the additional exclusion of insects only reduced reproductive success by a further 4%. Taken together, it is clear that lizards are the main pollinators of the enigmatic hidden flower. This discovery expands on our limited knowledge of lizard pollination syndromes and rises many interesting questions about how such relationships evolve.

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

Further Reading: [1] [2]

Red Nectar

No, your eyes are not playing tricks on you. This flower produces red nectar. Known scientifically as Nescodon mauritianus, this member of the bellflower family (Campanulaceae) grows only on the island of Mauritius. Although it is not alone in producing colored nectar (at least 60 other plant species do so as well) the striking contrast of the red nectar against the blue corolla had botanists wondering what exactly these plants are attracting.

Of course, the obvious answer were birds. It is no mystery that birds see in color much in the same way as us humans. However, multiple tests and observations demonstrated that birds were not the best pollinators for these flowers. In fact, the birds functioned mainly as thieves, stealing nectar without actually coming into contact with any of the necessary floral parts. The same thing happened to a Mauritian relative of the mallows named Trochetia blackburniana, which also produces colored nectar. 

To better understand the signalling mechanisms of these flowers, a team of researchers utilized a series of floral models. By filling the models with different colored nectar, they were able to better understand what they are attracting. As it turns out, the answer to this mystery are geckos. 

Phelsuma geckos visiting the flowers of  Trochetia blackburniana  (left) and flower models (right). Hansen et al. 2006

Phelsuma geckos visiting the flowers of Trochetia blackburniana (left) and flower models (right). Hansen et al. 2006

Living alongside these plants is a genus of day gecko called Phelsuma. They are endemic to Mauritius and can frequently be found visiting nectar-producing flowers in search of energy-rich nectar. By observing how the geckos responded to various color combinations, the team was able to discover that these geckos seem to prefer red and yellow nectar over clear. What's more, their feeding habits once inside the flower puts them in direct contact with the anthers and the stigma. Thus, the geckos function as the most effective pollinators for these plants. 

The team now feels that the colored nectar of these species serves as an honest reward for pollinating geckos. It is a stark indication that a reward is present. It is possible that because these geckos rely on brightly colored markings when interacting with each other, the selection for brightly colored floral signals has been favored in the evolution of these gecko pollinated plants. More work needs to be done to say for certain. What we do know for sure is that these day geckos are important pollinators in Mauritian ecosystems.

Photo Credits: [1] [2]

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]