Crab Spiders and Pitcher Plants: A Dynamic Duo

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Most pitcher plants in the genus Nepenthes seem pretty adept at catching prey. These plants specialize in nutrient-poor soils and their carnivorous habit evolved as a means of supplementing their nutritional needs. Despite the highly evolved nature of their pitfall traps (which are actually modified leaves), Nepenthes aren’t perfect killing machines. In fact, some get a helping hand from seemingly unlikely partners.

Spend enough time reading about Nepenthes in the wild and you will see countless mentions of arthropods hanging around their pitchers. Some of these inevitably become prey, however, there are others that appear to be taking advantage of the plant. Nepenthes don’t passively trap arthropods. Instead, they lure them in with bright colors and the promise of tasty treats like nectar. This is not lost on predators like spiders, who are frequent denizens of pitcher mouths.

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Most notable to Nepenthes specialists are some of the crab spiders that frequently haunt Nepenthes traps. These wonderful arachnids sit at the mouth of the pitcher and ambush any insects that try to pay it a visit. Often times both predator and prey fall down into the pitcher, however, thanks to a strand of silk, the spiders easily climb back out with their meal. This may seem like bad news for the pitcher, however, recent research based out of the National University of Singapore has shown that this relationship is not entirely one sided.

By studying the interactions between spiders and pitcher plants both in the lab and in the field, ecologists discovered that at least one species of pitcher plant (Nepenthes gracilis) appears to benefit greatly from the presence of crab spiders. The key to understanding this relationship lies in the types of prey N. gracilis is able to capture when crab spiders are and are not present.

Not only did the presence of a resident crab spider increase the amount of prey in each Nepenthes pitcher, it also changed the types of insects that were being captured. Crab spiders are ambush predators that frequently attack prey much larger than themselves. It may seem as if this is a form of food robbery on the part of the crab spider but the spiders can’t eat everything. When they have eaten their fill, the spiders discard the carcass into the pitcher where the plant can make quick work digesting it for its own benefit.

Over time, simply having a spider hunting on the trap led to a marked increase in the number of insects in each pitcher compared to those without a spider. Even if these meals are already half eaten, the plant still gains nutrients. Additionally, the types of prey captured by pitchers with and without crab spiders changed. The spiders were able to capture and subdue insects like flesh flies, which normally aren’t captured by Nepenthes pitchers. As such, the resident crab spiders make available a larger suite of potential prey than would be available if they weren’t using the pitchers as hunting grounds.

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The crab spiders may benefit the pitcher plant in other ways as well. Research on crab spiders has shown that their bodies are covered in pigments that register high in the UV spectrum. Insects can see UV light and often use it as a means of finding flowers as plants often produce UV-specific pigments in their floral tissues. The wide array of UV patterns on flowers are there to guide their pollinators into position. Researchers have documented that insects are actually more likely to visit flowers with crab spiders than those without, which has led to the idea that UV pigments in crab spiders actually act as insect attractants. Visiting insects simply cannot resist the UV stimulus and quickly fall victim to the resident crab spider.

Could it be that by taking up residence on a Nepenthes pitcher, the crab spiders are increasing the likelihood of insects visiting the traps? This remains to be seen as such questions did not fall under the scope of this investigation. That being said, it certainly offers tantalizing evidence that there is more to the Nepenthes-crab spider relationship. More work is needed to say for sure but the closer we look at such interactions, the more spectacular they become!

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4]

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

Life With Endophytic Fungi

Endophytic fungi living in the cells of a grass leaf.

Endophytic fungi living in the cells of a grass leaf.

Talk about plants long enough and fungi eventually make their way into the conversation. These two walks of life are inextricably linked and probably have been since the earliest days. At this point we are well aware of beneficial fungal partners like mycorrhizae or pathogens like the cedar apple rust. Another type of relationship we are only starting to fully appreciate is that of plants and endophytic fungi living in their above ground tissues. 

Endophytic fungi have been discovered in many different types of plants, however, it is best studied in grasses. The closer we look at these symbiotic relationships, the more complex the picture becomes. There are many ways in which plants can benefit from the presence of these fungi in their tissues and it appears that some plants even stock their seeds with fungi, which appears to give their offspring a better chance at establishment. 

To start, the benefits to the fungi are rather straight forward. They get a relatively safe place to live within the tissues of a plant. They also gain access to all of the carbohydrates the plants produce via photosynthesis. This is not unlike what we see with mycorrhizae. But what about the plants? What could they gain from letting fungi live in and around their cells?

One amazing benefit endophytic fungi offer plants is protection. Fungi are famous for the chemical cocktails they produce and many of these can harm animals. Such benefits vary from plant to plant and fungi to fungi, however, the overall effect is largely the same. Herbivores feeding on plants like grasses that have been infected with endophytic fungi are deterred from doing so either because the fungi make the plant distasteful or downright toxic. It isn't just big herbivores that are deterred either. Evidence has shown that insects are also affected.

There is even some evidence to suggest that these anti-herbivore compounds might have influences farther up the food chain. It usually takes a lot of toxins to bring down a large herbivore, however, some of these toxins have the potential to build up in the tissues of some herbivores and therefore may influence their appeal to predators. Some have hypothesized that the endophytic fungal toxins may make herbivores more susceptible to predators. Perhaps the toxins make the herbivores less cautious or slow them down, making them more likely targets. Certainly more work is needed before anyone can say for sure.

Italian ryegrass ( Lolium multiflorum ) is one of the most studied grasses that host endophytic fungi.

Italian ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum) is one of the most studied grasses that host endophytic fungi.

Another amazing example deals with parasitoids like wasps that lay their eggs in other insects. Researchers found that female parasitoid wasps can discriminate between aphids that have been feeding on plants with endophytic fungi and those without endophytic fungi. Wasp larvae developed more slowly and had a shorter lifespan when raised in aphids that have fed on endophytic fungi plants. As such, the distribution of plants with endophytic symbionts may have serious ramifications for parasitoid abundance in any given habitat.

Another benefit these endophytic fungi offer plants is increased photosynthesis. Amazingly, some grasses appear to photosynthesize better with endophytic fungi living in their tissues than plants without fungi. There are many mechanisms by which this may work but to simplify the matter, it appears that by producing defense compounds, endophytic fungi allow the plant to redistribute their metabolic processes towards photosynthesis and growth. In return, the plants produce more carbohydrates that then feed the fungi living in their tissues. 

One of the most remarkable aspects about the relationship between endophytic fungi and plants is that the plants can pass these fungi on to their offspring. Fungi are able to infect the tissues of the host plants' seeds and therefore can be carried with the seeds wherever they go. As the seedlings grow, so do the fungi. Some evidence suggests this gives infected seedlings a leg up on the competition. Other studies have not found such pronounced effects.

Still other studies have shown that it may not be fungi in the seeds that make a big difference but rather the fungi present in the decaying tissues of plants growing around them. Endophytic fungi have been shown to produce allelopathic compounds that poison neighboring plants. Areas receiving lots of plant litter containing endophytic fungi produced fewer plants but these plants grew larger than areas without endophytic fungi litter. Perhaps this reduces competition in favor of plant species than can host said endophytes. Again, this has potentially huge ramifications for the diversity and abundance of plant species living in a given area.

We are only beginning to understand the role of endophytic fungi in the lives of plants and the communities they make up. To date, it would appear that endophytic fungi are potentially having huge impacts on ecosystems around the globe. It goes without saying that more research is needed.

Photo Credits: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6]

                                                        

Growing Camouflage

A garden on the back of a weevil living a humid Chilean rainforest.

A garden on the back of a weevil living a humid Chilean rainforest.

Lots of us will be familiar with organisms like decorator crabs that utilize bits and pieces of their environment, especially living sea anemones, as a form of camouflage and protection. Examples of terrestrial insects attaching bits and pieces of lichens to their body are not unheard of either. However, there are at least two groups of arthropods that take their camouflage to a whole new level by actively growing miniature gardens on their bodies.

Little is known about these garden-growing arthropods. To date, these miniature gardens have only been reported on a few species of weevil in the genus Gymnopholus as well as a species of millipede called Psammodesmus bryophorus. Coined epizoic symbiosis, it is thought that these gardens serve as a form of protection by camouflaging the gardeners against the backdrop of their environment.

Bryophytes on a  Psammodesmus bryophorus  male.

Bryophytes on a Psammodesmus bryophorus male.

Indeed, both groups of arthropods frequent exposed areas. What is most remarkable about this relationship is that these plants were not placed on the carapace from elsewhere in the environment. Instead, they have been actively growing there from the beginning. Closer inspection of the cuticle of these arthropods reveals unique structural adaptations like pits and hairs that provide favorable microclimates for spores to germinate and grow.

The plant communities largely consist of mosses and liverworts. At least 5 different liverwort families are represented and at least one family of moss. Even more remarkable is the fact that even these small botanical communities are enough to support a miniature ecosystem of their own. Researchers have found numerous algae such as diatoms, lichens, and a variety of fungi growing amidst the mosses and liverworts. These in turn support small communities of mites. It appears that an entire unknown ecosystem lives on the backs of these mysterious arthropods.

FIGURE 39. Elytral base of Gymnopholus (Niphetoscapha) nitidus with exudates. FIGURES 40a–b. Gymnopholus (Niphetoscapha) inexspectatus sp. n., live specimen with incrustrations of algae and lichens; photographs M. Wild, Mokndoma.  [SOURCE]

FIGURE 39. Elytral base of Gymnopholus (Niphetoscapha) nitidus with exudates. FIGURES 40a–b. Gymnopholus (Niphetoscapha) inexspectatus sp. n., live specimen with incrustrations of algae and lichens; photographs M. Wild, Mokndoma. [SOURCE]

There is still much to be learned about this symbiotic relationship. Although camouflage is the leading hypothesis, no work has been done to actually investigate the benefits these arthropods receive from actively growing these miniature gardens on their backs. Mysteries still abound. For instance, in the case of the millipede, gardens are found more frequently on the backs of males than on the backs of females. Could it be that males spend more time searching their environment and thus benefit from the added camouflage? Only further research will tell.

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

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

Of Bluebells and Fungi

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Whether in your garden or in the woods, common bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) are a delightful respite from the dreary months of winter. It should come as no surprise that these spring geophytes are a staple in temperate gardens the world over. And, as amazing as they are in the garden, bluebells are downright fascinating in the wild.

Bluebells can be found growing naturally from the northwestern corner of Spain north into the British Isles. They are largely a woodland species, though finding them in meadows isn't uncommon. They are especially common in sites that have not experienced much soil disturbance. In fact, large bluebell populations are used as indicators of ancient wood lots.

Being geophytes, bluebells cram growth and reproduction into a few short weeks in spring. We tend to think of plants like this as denizens of shade, however, most geophytes get going long before the canopy trees have leafed out. As such, these plants are more accurately sun bathers. On warm days, various bees can be seen visiting the pendulous flowers, with the champion pollinator being the humble bumble bees.

The above ground beauty of bluebells tends to distract us from learning much about their ecology. That hasn't stopped determined scientists though. Plenty of work has been done looking at how bluebells make their living and get on with their botanical neighbors. In fact, research is turning up some incredible data regarding bluebells and mycorrhizal fungi.

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Bluebell seeds tend not to travel very far, most often germinating near the base of the parent. Germination occurs in the fall when temperatures begin to drop and the rains pick up. Interestingly, bluebell seeds actually germinate within the leaf litter and begin putting down their initial root before the first frosts. Often this root is contractile, pulling the tiny seedling down into the soil where it is less likely to freeze. During their first year, phosphorus levels are high. Not only does the nutrient-rich endosperm supply the seedling with much of its initial needs, abundant phosphorus near the soil surface supplies more than enough for young plants. This changes as the plants age and change their position within the soil.

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Over the next 4 to 5 years, the bluebell's contractile roots pull it deeper down into the soil, taking it out of the reach of predators and frost. This also takes them farther away from the nutrient-rich surface layers. What's more, the roots of older bluebells are rather simple structures. They do not branch much, if at all, and they certainly do not have enough surface area for proper nutrient uptake. This is where mycorrhizae come in.

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Bluebells partner with a group of fungi called arbuscular mycorrhiza, which penetrate the root cells, thus greatly expanding the effective rooting zone of the plant. Plants pay these fungi in carbohydrates produced during photosynthesis and in return, the fungi provide the plants with access to far more nutrients than they would be able to get without them. One of the main nutrients plants gain from these symbiotic fungi is phosphorus.

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For bluebells, with age comes new habitat, and with new habitat comes an increased need for nutrients. This is why bluebells become more dependent on arbuscular mycorrhiza as they age. In fact, plants grown without these fungi do not come close to breaking even on the nutrients needed for growth and maintenance and thus live a shortened life of diminishing returns. This is an opposite pattern from what we tend to expect out of mycorrhizal-dependent plants. Normally its the seedlings that cannot live without mycorrhizal symbionts. It just goes to show you that even familiar species like the bluebell can offer us novel insights into the myriad ways in which plants eke out a living.

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

Further Reading: [1] [2]

 

The Extraordinary Catasetum Orchids

Male  Catasetum osculatum

Male Catasetum osculatum

Orchids, in general, have perfect flowers in that they contain both male and female organs. However, in a family this large, exceptions to the rules are always around the corner. Take, for instance, orchids in the genus Catasetum. With something like 166 described species, this genus is interesting in that individual plants produce either male or female flowers. What's more, the floral morphology of the individual sexes are so distinctly different from one another that some were originally described as distinct species. 

Female  Catasetum osculatum

Female Catasetum osculatum

In fact, it was Charles Darwin himself that first worked out that plants of the different sexes were indeed the same species. The genus Catasetum enthralled Darwin and he was able to procure many specimens from his friends for study. Resolving the distinct floral morphology wasn't his only contribution to our understanding of these orchids, he also described their unique pollination mechanism. The details of this process are so bizarre that Darwin was actually ridiculed by some scientists of the time. Yet again, Darwin was right. 

Catasetum longifolium

Catasetum longifolium

If having individual male and female plants wasn't strange enough for these orchids, the mechanism by which pollination is achieved is quite explosive... literally. 

Catasetum orchids are pollinated by large Euglossine bees. Attracted to the male flowers by their alluring scent, the bees land on the lip and begin to probe the flower. Above the lip sits two hair-like structures. When a bee contacts these hairs, a structure containing sacs of pollen called a pollinia is launched downwards towards the bee. A sticky pad at the base ensures that once it hits the bee, it sticks tight. 

Male Catasetum flower in action. Taken from BBC's Kingdom of Plants.

Male Catasetum flower in action. Taken from BBC's Kingdom of Plants.

Bees soon learn that the male flowers are rather unpleasant places to visit so they set off in search of a meal that doesn't pummel them. This is quite possibly why the flowers of the individual sexes look so different from one another. As the bees visit the female flowers, the pollen sacs on their back slip into a perfect groove and thus pollination is achieved. 

Eulaema polychroma  visiting  Catasetum integerrimum

Eulaema polychroma visiting Catasetum integerrimum

The uniqueness of this reproductive strategy has earned the Catasetum orchids a place in the spotlight among botanists and horticulturists alike. It begs the question, how is sex determined in these orchids? Is it genetic or are there certain environmental factors that push the plant in either direction? As it turns out, light availability may be one of the most important cues for sex determination in Catasetum

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A paper published back in 1991 found that there were interesting patterns of sex ratios for at least one species of Catasetum. Female plants were found more often in younger forests whereas the ratios approached an even 1:1 in older forests. What the researchers found was that plants are more likely to produce female flowers under open canopies and male flowers under closed canopies. In this instance, younger forests are more open than older, more mature forests, which may explain the patterns they found in the wild. It is possible that, because seed production is such a costly endeavor for plants, individuals with access to more light are better suited for female status. 

Catasetum macrocarpum

Catasetum macrocarpum

Aside from their odd reproductive habits, the ecology of these plants is also quite fascinating. Found throughout the New World tropics, Catasetum orchids live as epiphytes on the limbs and trunks of trees. Living in the canopy like this can be stressful and these orchids have evolved accordingly. For starters, they are deciduous. Most of the habitats in which they occur experience a dry season. As the rains fade, the plants will drop their leaves, leaving behind a dense cluster of green pseudobulbs. These bulbous structures serve as energy and water stores that will fuel growth as soon as the rains return. 

Catasetum silvestre in situ

Catasetum silvestre in situ

The canopy can also be low in vital nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. As is true for all orchids, Catasetum rely on an intimate partnership with special mychorrizal fungi to supplement these ingredients. Such partnerships are vital for germination and growth. However, the fungi that they partner with feed on dead wood, which is low in nitrogen. This has led to yet another intricate and highly specialized relationship for at least some members of this orchid genus. 

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Mature Catasetum are often found growing right out of arboreal ant nests. Those that aren't will often house entire ant colonies inside their hollowed out pseudobulbs. This will sometimes even happen in a greenhouse setting, much to the chagrin of many orchid growers. The partnership with ants is twofold. In setting up shop within the orchid or around its roots, the ants provide the plant with a vital source of nitrogen in the form of feces and other waste products. At the same time, the ants will viciously attack anything that may threaten their nest. In doing so, they keep many potential herbivores at bay.  

Female  Catasetum planiceps

Female Catasetum planiceps

To look upon a flowering Catasetum is quite remarkable. They truly are marvels of evolution and living proof that there seems to be no end to what orchids have done in the name of survival. Luckily for most of us, one doesn't have to travel to the jungles and scale a tree just to see one of these orchids up close. Their success in the horticultural trade means that most botanical gardens house at least a species or two. If and when you do encounter a Catasetum, do yourself a favor and take time to admire it in all of its glory. You will be happy that you did. 

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] 

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

The Early Days Of A Symbiosis?

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Despite the ubiquitous nature of symbioses across the globe, evidence of their origins is scant to say the least. Mostly we look for clues of their origin hidden within the fossil record. Excitingly, a series of fossils discovered in Scotland reveal what very well be the early days of plant-cyanobacterial interactions. Thanks to these exquisitely preserved fossils, we now have the earliest record of an association between these two groups of organisms.

The fossils themselves date back to the early Devonian, some 400 million years ago. They hail from a hot spring community which allowed wonderfully detailed preservation of everything down to the cellular level. Needless to say, this was a drastically different time for life on this planet. Plants were really starting to dominate the landscape. In the case of the fossil discoveries in question, one plant in particular is the star of this show. 

Meet Aglaophyton major. This odd looking plant would have been a common site in these sorts of habitats. It largely consisted of a small, leafless stem that branched as it ambled over the ground. These stems bore the stomata, which allowed gas exchange to occur. Every once in a while, a stem would throw up a reproductive structure called a sporangium, which housed the spores. At the ground level, the stems would occasionally produce root-like rhizoids that have been found in association with fossilized mycorrhizal fungi in the soil.

In total, A. major only stood about 18 cm in height. Though abundant, it was relatively small compared to some of the other vegetation coming online at this point in time. It is likely that A. major could tolerate occasional flooding. In fact, some have speculated that flooding may have been necessary for the germination of its spores. It's this periodic inundation with water that likely led to an interesting and tantalizing relationship with cyanobacteria. 

1. Transverse section through two typical axes showing the simple internal organization; slide P1828; bar = 1 mm. 2. Anatomy of the prostrate mycorrhizal axis (E = epidermis; OC = outer cortex; MAZ = mycorrhizal arbuscule-zone; IC = inner cortex; PIT = phloem-like tissue; CT = conducting tissue); slide P1612; bar = 150 μm. 3. Dense aggregate of cyanobacterial filaments in an area where the axis is injured and has exuded some type of wound secretion (opaque mass); slide P1289; bar = 100 μm. 4. Detail of Plate I, 3, showing part of the cyanobacterial aggregate; bar = 100 μm. 5. Intercellular cyanobacterial filaments near the mycorrhizal arbuscule-zone of the cortex (darker tissue in lower third of image); slide P3652; bar = 50 μm. 6. Group of filaments passing through the intercellular system of the outer cortex; slide P3652; bar = 20 μm.

1. Transverse section through two typical axes showing the simple internal organization; slide P1828; bar = 1 mm. 2. Anatomy of the prostrate mycorrhizal axis (E = epidermis; OC = outer cortex; MAZ = mycorrhizal arbuscule-zone; IC = inner cortex; PIT = phloem-like tissue; CT = conducting tissue); slide P1612; bar = 150 μm. 3. Dense aggregate of cyanobacterial filaments in an area where the axis is injured and has exuded some type of wound secretion (opaque mass); slide P1289; bar = 100 μm. 4. Detail of Plate I, 3, showing part of the cyanobacterial aggregate; bar = 100 μm. 5. Intercellular cyanobacterial filaments near the mycorrhizal arbuscule-zone of the cortex (darker tissue in lower third of image); slide P3652; bar = 50 μm. 6. Group of filaments passing through the intercellular system of the outer cortex; slide P3652; bar = 20 μm.

Cyanobacteria are probably best known for their contribution of oxygen to Earth's early atmosphere. What's more, many also fix nitrogen. That is why the fossil discovery of A. major with cyanobacteria in and around its cells is so exciting. These 400 million year old fossils provide the first evidence of a plant and cyanobacteria in an intimate association.

As mentioned above, the fossilization process was so thorough that it preserved subcellular structures. After thin sectioning some A. major stems, a team of researchers found filaments of cyanobacteria in the process of invading the plant and taking up residence. The cyanobacteria appears to be entering the plant through the stomatal openings along the stem. Once inside, the cyanobacteria show signs of colonazation of substomatal chambers as well as intercellular spaces within the plants tissues.

Although the authors cannot say whether this association was mutualistic or not, it nonetheless represents a model situation detailing how such a symbiotic relationship could have evolved in the first place. Because the cyanobacteria in question here is thought to be aquatic, the only way for it to move into the plant would have been during periodic flooding events. The idea that this could be simply an infection following the death of the plant was considered. However, the non-random distribution of cyanobacteria within A. major cells suggests that this relationship was no accident.

For now, the relationship between A. major and cyanobacteria was likely an "on-again–off-again incidental association" centered around flood events. The fact that A. major was already associated with mycorrhizal fungi at this point in Earth's history certainly suggests that the genetic adaptations necessary for symbiotic relationships were already in place. Though it isn't a smoking gun, these fossils provide the earliest evidence of plants' relationship with cyanobacteria.

Photo Credits: [1]

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

The Nitrogen-Fixing Abilities of Cycads

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Long before the first legumes came onto the scene, the early ancestors of Cycads were hard at work fixing atmospheric nitrogen. However, they don't do this on their own. Despite being plentiful in Earth's atmosphere, gaseous nitrogen is not readily available to most forms of life. Only a special subset of organisms are capable of turning gaseous nitrogen into forms usable for life. Some of the first organisms to do this were the cyanobacteria, which has led them down the path towards symbioses with various plants on many occasions. 

Cycads are but one branch of the gymnosperm tree. Their lineage arose at some point between the Carboniferous and Permian eras. Throughout their history it would seem that Cycads have done quite well in poor soils. They owe this success to a partnership they struck up with cyanobacteria. Although it is impossible to say when exactly this happened, all extant cycads we know of today maintain this symbiotic relationship with these tiny prokaryotic organisms. 

Cross section of a coralloid cycad root showing the green cyanobacteria inside.

Cross section of a coralloid cycad root showing the green cyanobacteria inside.

The relationship takes place in Cycad roots. Cycads don't germinate with cyanobacteria in tow. They must acquire them from their immediate environment. To do so, they begin forming specialized structures called precoralloid roots. Unlike other roots that generally grow downwards, these roots grow upwards. They must situate themselves in the upper layer of soil where enough light penetrates for cyanobacteria to photosynthesize.

The cyanobacteria enter into the precoralloid roots through tiny cracks and take up residence. This causes a change in root development. The Cycad then initiates their development into true coralloid roots, which will house the cyanobacteria from that point on. Cycads appear to be in full control of the relationship, dolling out carbohydrates in return for nitrogen depending on the demands of their environment. Coralloid roots can shed and reform throughout the lifetime of the plant. It is quite remarkable to think about how nitrogen-fixing symbiotic relationships between plants and microbes have evolved independently throughout the history of life on this planet.

Photo Credits: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1] [2]

 

The World's Only (Known) Photosynthetic Vertebrate

You may be asking yourself right now why I have posted a picture of a salamander this morning. This is a plant blog after all! Well, what I am about to tell you may seem a bit crazy, but I assure you this discovery has opened up some doors that science never really considered a possibility before. The yellow spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) is the first and only (known) photosynthetic vertebrate ever discovered!

That's right. You heard me. A photosynthetic animal. More accurately speaking, it is the embryos of this species that undergo photosynthesis. To understand why this happens we must back up a little bit. Yellow spotted salamanders are a species of mole salamander that can be found in wet areas of eastern North America. They spend most of their adult lives underground, hiding beneath logs and rocks in the forest, feeding on any manner of invertebrates. Once a year (around this time) adult yellow spotted salamanders undertake a massive migration down to the pools where they mate. On the first few warm, rainy nights, thousands of salamanders can be seen trucking their way to vernal pools and ponds to breed. It is an amazing sight to behold.

The thing about yellow spotted salamanders is they will only breed in fishless ponds. Their larvae would be an easy meal for many predatory fish species. The problem that arises out of this breeding strategy is that fishless ponds tend to be very low in oxygen. It has long been known that the eggs of this species form a symbiotic relationship with an algae. The algae produce oxygen for the developing embryo and the embryo feeds the algae via its nitrogen rich waste and CO2. This relationship was always thought to be external, that is until Ryan Kerney of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia discovered that embryos of a certain age actually had algae living within their cells.

They algae don't seem to start off inside the cells though. This may be why this relationship wasn't discovered earlier. Roger Hangarter at Indiana University found that it isn't until parts of the salamander's nervous system begin to develop that the algae move into the embryo and set up shop. The algae then reside near the salamander's mitochondria, which are the powerhouses of the cell. So where are the algae coming from? While more research needs to be done, Karney also discovered the presence of algae in the oviducts of adult female spotted salamanders. It is looking like mother salamanders are actually passing the algae on to their offspring. 

Though this is the first and only instance we know of this sort of photosynthetic relationship in vertebrate animals, this discovery has opened the door for exploring the possibility of other photosynthetic symbionts. It has also allowed scientists a different avenue to explore just how cells recognize and deal with foreign bodies. We live in such an amazing world!

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3]

 

The Ant-Farming Tillandsias

Tillandsias are all the rage. Their relative ease of care has found them included in seemingly every terrarium sold these days; often in very inappropriate circumstances that result in their death. There is no denying that these epiphytic relatives of the pineapple are unique and beautiful plants but I would argue that their ecology is probably the coolest aspect about them. I am particularly fond of the bulbous species because of their relationship with ants.

That's right, there are upwards of 13 species of bulbous Tillandsia that offer up housing for ants. If you look closely at the leaves of these species, you will notice that they roll up to form tubes that lead down into the bulb at the base. The space between the leaves forms a hollow chamber, functioning as a perfect microclimate for ants to nest. In many habitats, these Tillandsia offer better housing than the surrounding environment. One would be surprised at how many ants can fit in there too. Colonies containing anywhere between 100 - 300 ants are not unheard of.

The rewards for the plant are obvious. Ants provide nutrients as well as protection. In return the ants get a relatively safe and dry place to live. Ant domatia have been recorded in roughly 13 different species, many of which are some of the most commonly sold Tillandsias on the market such as T. baileyi, T. balbisiana, T. bulbosa, and T. caput-medusae. If this doesn't make your hanging glass Tillandsia orb even cooler then I don't know what will.

Photo Credits: scott.zona (http://bit.ly/16kZ1RR) and Alex Popovkin (http://bit.ly/1BXMEUH)

Further Reading: [1] [2]

Bacteria Help the Cobra Lily Subdue Prey

The aptly named cobra lily (Darlingtonia californica) is one of North America's most stunning pitcher plants. Native to a small region between northern California and southwestern Oregon, this bizarrely beautiful carnivore lives out its life in nutrient poor, cold water bogs and seeps. Although it resides in the same family as our other North American pitcher plants, Sarraceniaceae, the cobra lily has a unique taxonomic position as the only member of its genus.

It doesn't take much familiarity with this plant to guess that it is carnivorous. Its highly modified leaves function has superb insect traps. Lured in by the brightly colored, tongue-like protrusions near the front tip of the hood, insects find a sweet surprise. These tongue-like structures secrete nectar. As insects gradually make their way up the tongue, they inevitably find themselves within the downward pointing mouth of the pitcher. This is where those translucent spots on the top of the hood come in.

These translucent spots trick the insects into flying upwards into the light. Instead of a clean getaway, insects crash into the inside of the hood and fall down within the trap. The slippery walls of the pitchers interior make escape nearly impossible but that isn't the only thing keeping insects inside. Research has shown that the cobra lily gets a helping hand from bacteria living within the pitcher fluid.

Unlike other pitcher plants, the cobra lily does not fill its traps with rain water. The downward pointing mouth prevents that from happening. Instead, the pitchers secrete their own fluid by pumping water up from the roots. Although there is evidence that the cobra lily does produce at least some of its own digestive enzymes, it is largely believed that this species relies heavily on a robust microbial community living within its pitchers to do most of the digesting for it. This mutualistic community of microbes save the plant a lot of energy while also providing it with essential nutrients like nitrogen in return for a safe place to live.

That isn't all the bacteria are doing for this pitcher plant either. As it turns out, the pitchers' microbial community may also be helping the plant capture and subdue its prey. A recent study based out of UC Berkeley demonstrated that the presence of these microbes helps lower the surface tension of the water, effectively drowning any insect almost immediately.

The microbes release certain compounds called biosurfactants. Through an interesting chemical/physical process that I won't go into here, this keeps insects from using the surface tension of the water's surface to keep them afloat, not unlike a water strider on a pond. Instead, as soon as insects hit the bacteria infested waters, they break the surface tension and sink down to the bottom of the pitcher where they quickly drown. There is little chance of escape for a hapless insect unlucky enough to fall into a cobra lily trap.

Although plant-microbe interactions are nothing new to science, this example is the first of its kind. Although this prey capture role is very likely a secondary benefit of the microbial community within the pitchers, it very likely makes a big difference for these carnivores living in such nutrient poor conditions.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Further Reading: [1]

Yeast in Lichens

Quite possibly one of the oldest symbiotic relationships on Earth has been hiding in plain sight all this time. Lichens have long been regarded as the poster child for symbiotic relationships. Certain species of fungi team up with specific algae and/or cyanobacteria in a sort of "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" type of relationship. In return for room and board the photosynthetic partner feeds the fungus. There are many variations on this theme which translates into the myriad shapes and colors of lichen species around the globe. For 150 years we have been operating under the assumption that there is only ever one species of fungus (in the phylum Ascomycota) for any given lichen. We were wrong. 

Originally thought to be contamination, researchers at the University of Montana and Perdue found gene expression belonging to the other major fungal phyla, Basidiomycota. The research team soon realized that they had uncovered something quite monumental. Lichens were harboring a partner we never knew existed. These newly discovered fungi are an entirely new lineage of yeast. What's more, this relationship has been documented in upwards of 52 other lichen genera worldwide! 

This discovery has led to another major breakthrough in lichen biology, their bizarre variety. The exact same species of fungus and alga can produce completely different lichens with wildly different attributes. Take the example of Bryoria torturosa and B. fremontii. They were thought to share the same partners and yet one is yellow and toxic whereas the other is brown and innocuous. Knowing what to look for, however, has revealed that their yeast partners are entirely different. The yeast is thought to be a sort of shield for the lichen, producing noxious acids that deter infections and predation. 

Almost overnight a new light has been shown on our lichen neighbors. These newly discovered partners aren't a recent evolutionary development. This trifecta likely stems back to the early days when little else lived on land. It just goes to show you how much we still do not know about our planet. It's nice to be reminded of this. 

Further Reading:

http://bit.ly/29WWZ2z 

Myrmecochory!

Let's hear it for ants! 

Thats right, ants. Without ants I would venture to stay that a lot of life as we know it would be radically different. One of the many ways in which ants fill important niche roles is as seed dispersers. 

Known as myrmecochory, many species of plants rely on ants to move their seeds from place to place. They encourage the ants to do this by attaching appendages to their seeds called elaiosomes. Elaiosomes are little fleshy structures that are packed full of lipids and proteins. Foraging ants take these seeds back to their colonies where the elaiosome is eaten and the seed is then discarded. Ants have special chambers in their colonies for trash. They are basically little underground compost heaps. 

When the seeds are thrown away, they suddenly find themselves in a very stable, nutrient rich area where they can safely germinate. It makes so much sense. The ants get a little meal and the plant has provided its offspring with one of the safest storage and planting environments. Next time you are hiking in the woods and see a population of plants that evolved this method, there is a good chance that an ant colony is near by. 

There is also some evidence to suggest that the seeds gain a cleaning benefit from the ants as well. Living in close quarters and in such high numbers as ants do, disease is a particularly prevalent issue. Because of that, ants have evolved specialized glands that secrete a liquid with antimicrobial properties. It is possible that ants may inadvertently clean seeds that enter their nest with this fluid. Since diseases, especially certain types of fungi, are one of the leading causes of seedling mortality, it is very possible that this is yet another added benefit of having ants as your seed dispersal agent. More research is necessary to see if this is truly what is going on. 

The sheer number of plants species that utilize ants in this way is staggering. Here in North America, the majority of myrmecochorous plants are spring ephemerals. There is a lot less food available to ants in the spring, making these seeds very appealing. Once summer hits, scavenging ants are less likely to pay attention to seeds in lieu of more nutritious food available. Here are just a few examples you may be familiar with:

Hepatica
Violets
Wild ginger
Dutchman's breeches
Trout lily
Bloodroot
Trillium
Milkworts
Corydalis

Photo Credit: Cotinis

Further reading:

http://bit.ly/23T9gJA