Live-In Mites

Hearing the word "mite" as a gardener instantly makes me think of pests such as spider mites. This is not fair. The family to which mites belong (Acari) is highly varied and contains many beneficial species. Many mites are important predators at the micro scale. Some are fungivorous, eating potentially harmful species of fungi. Whereas this may be lost on the majority of us humans, it is certainly not lost on many species of plants. In fact, the relationship between some plants and mites is so strong that these plants go as far as to provide them with a sort of home.

Domatia are specialized structures that are produced by plants to house arthropods. A lot of different plant species produce domatia but not all of them are readily apparent to us. For instance, many trees and vines such as red oak (Quercus rubra), sugar maples (Acer saccharum), black cherries (Prunus serotina), and many species of grape (Vitis spp.) produce tiny domatia specifically for mites. The domatia are often small, hairy, and function as shelter for both the mites and their eggs.

By housing certain species of mites, these plants are ensuring that they have a steady supply of hunters and cleaners living on their leaves. Predatory mites are voracious hunters, keeping valuable leaves free of microscopic herbivores while frugivorous mites clean the leaves of detrimental fungi that are known to cause infections such as powdery mildew. The exchange is pretty straight forward. Mites get a home and a place to breed and the plants get some protection. Still, some plants seem to want to sweeten the relationship in a literal sense.

Some plants, specifically grape vines in the genus Vitis, also produce extrafloral nectaries on their leaves. These tiny glands secrete sugary nectar. In a paper recently published in the Annals of Botany, it was found that extrafloral nectaries enhances the efficacy of these mite domatia by enticing more mites to stick around. By adding nectar to domatia-producing leaves that did not secrete it, the researchers found that nectar increases beneficial mite densities on these leaves by 60 - 80%. This translates to an increase in fitness for these plants in the long run.

I love research like this. I had no idea that so many of my favorite and most familiar tree and vine species had entered into an evolutionary relationship with beneficial mites. This adds a whole new layer of complexity to the interactions within any given environment. It just goes to show you how much is left to be discovered in our own back yards.

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

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

Rhizanthes lowii

Imagine hiking through the forests of Borneo and coming across this strange object. It's hairy, it's fleshy, and it smells awful. With no vegetative bits lying around, you may jump to the conclusion that this was some sort of fungus. You would be wrong. What you are looking at is the flower of a strange parasitic plant known as Rhizanthes lowii.

R. lowii is a holoparasite. It produces no photosynthetic tissues whatsoever. In fact, aside from its bizarre flowers, its doesn't produce anything that would readily characterize it as a plant. In lieu of stems, leaves, and roots, this species lives as a network of mycelium-like cells inside the roots of their vine hosts. Only when it comes time to flower will you ever encounter this species (or any of its relatives for that matter).

The flowers are interesting structures. Their sole purpose, of course, is to attract their pollinators, which in this case are carrion flies. As one would imagine, the flowers add to their already meaty appearance a smell that has been likened to that of a rotting corpse. Even more peculiar, however, is the fact that these flowers produce their own heat. Using a unique metabolism, the flower temperature can rise as much as 7 degrees above ambient. Even more strange is the fact that the flowers seem to be able to regulate this temperature. Instead of a dramatic spike followed by a gradual decrease in temperature, flowers are able to maintain this temperature gradient throughout the flowering period.

There could be many reasons for doing this. It could enhance the rate of floral development. This is a likely possibility as temperature increases have been recorded during bud development. It could also be used as a way of enticing pollinators, which can use the flower to warm up. This seems unlikely given its tropical habitat. Another possibility is that it helps disperse its odor by volatilizing the smelly compounds. In a similar vein, it may improve the carrion mimicry. Certainly this may play a role, however, flies don't seem to have an issue finding carrion that has cooled to ambient temperature. Finally, it has also been suggested that the heat may improve fertilization rates. This also seems quite likely as thermoregulation has been shown to continue after the flowers have withered away.

Regardless of its true purpose, the combination of lifestyle, appearance, and heat producing properties of this species makes for a bizarrely spectacular floral encounter. To see this plant in the wild would be a truly special event.

Photo Credit: Ch'ien C. Lee - www.wildborneo.com.my/photo.php?f=cld1500900.jpg

Further Reading:

http://www.jstor.org/stable/4222678?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~ccdavis/pdfs/Nikolov_et_al_AJB_2014.pdf