Fluorescent Bananas

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Bananas are one of the most popular fruits in the world. Love them or hate them, most of us know what they look like. Despite their global presence, few stop to think about where these fruits come from. That is a shame because bananas are fascinating plants for many reasons but now we can add blue fluorescence to that list.

Before we dive into the intriguing phenomenon of fluorescence in bananas, I think it is worth talking about the plants that produce them in a little more detail. Bananas belong to the genus Musa, which is located in its own family - Musaceae. Take a step back and look at a banana plant and it won't take long to realize they are distant relatives of the gingers. There are at least 68 recognized species of banana in the world and many more cultivated varieties. Despite their pan-tropical distribution, the genus Musa is native only to parts of the Indo-Malesian, Asian, and Australian tropics.

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Banana plants vary in height from species to species. At the smaller end of the spectrum you have species like the diminutive Musa velutina, which maxes out at about 2 meters (6 ft.) in height. On the taller side of things, there are species such as the monstrous Musa ingens, which can reach heights of 20 meters (66ft.)! Despite their arborescent appearance, bananas are not trees at all. They do not produce any wood. Instead, what looks like a tree trunk is actually the fused petioles of their leaves. Bananas are essentially giant herbs with the aforementioned M. ingens holding the world record for largest herb in the world.

When it comes time to flower, a long spike emerges from the main growing tip. This spike gradually elongates, revealing long, beautiful, tubular flowers arranged in whorls. For many banana species, bats are the main pollinators, however, a variety of insects will visit as well. In the wild, fruits appear following pollination, a trait that has been bred out of their cultivated relatives, which produce fruits without needing pollination. The fruits of a banana are actually a type a berry that dehisce like a capsule upon ripening, revealing delicious pulp chock full of hard seeds. Not all bananas turn yellow upon ripening. In fact, some are pink!

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For many fruits, the act of ripening often coincides with a change in color. This is a way for the plant to signal to seed dispersers that the fruits, and the seeds inside, are ready. As many of us know, many bananas start off green and gradually ripen to a bright yellow. This process involves a gradual breakdown of the chlorophyll within the banana skin. As the chlorophyll within the skin of a banana breaks down, it leaves behind a handful of byproducts. It turns out, some of these byproducts fluoresce blue under UV light. 

Amazingly, the fluorescent properties of bananas was only recently discovered. Researchers studying chlorophyll breakdown in the skins of various fruits identified some intriguing compounds in the skins of ripe Cavendish bananas. When viewed under UV light, these compounds gave off a luminescent blue hue. Further investigation revealed that as bananas ripen, their fluorescent properties grow more and more intense.

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There could be a couple reasons why this happens. First, it could simply be happenstance. Perhaps these fluorescent compounds are simply a curious byproduct of chlorophyll breakdown and serve no function for the plant whatsoever. However, bananas seem to be a special case. The way in which chlorophyll in the skin of a banana breaks down is quite different than the process of chlorophyll breakdown in other plants. What's more, the abundance of these compounds in the banana skin seems to suggest that the fluorescence does indeed have a function - seed dispersal.

Researchers now believe that the fluorescent properties of some ripe bananas serves as an additional signal to potential seed dispersers that the time is right for harvest. Many animals including birds and some mammals can see well into the UV spectrum and it is likely that the blue fluorescence of these bananas is a means of attracting such animals. Additionally, researchers also found that banana leaves fluoresce in a similar way, perhaps to sweeten the attractive display of the ripening fruits.

To date, little follow up has been done on fluorescence in bananas. It is likely that far more banana species exhibit this trait. Certainly more work is needed before we can say for sure what role, if any, these compounds play in the lives of wild bananas. Until then, this could be a fun trait to investigate in the comfort of your own home. Grab a black light and see if your bananas glow blue!

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

Further Reading: [1] [2]

The Rose of Jericho

To survive in a desert, plants must eek out an existence in specific microclimates that provide conditions that are only slightly better than the surrounding landscape. Such is the case for the Rose of Jericho (Anastatica hierochuntica). This tenacious little mustard is found throughout arid regions of the Middle East and the Saharan Desert and it has been made famous the world over for its "resurrection" abilities. It is also the subject of much speculation so today we are going to separate fact from fiction and reveal what years of research has taught about this desert survivor. 

Natural selection has shaped this species into an organism fully ready to take advantage of those fleeting moments when favorable growing conditions present themselves. A. hierochuntica makes its living in dry channels called runnels or wadis, which concentrate water during periods of rain. It is a desert annual meaning the growth period of any individual is relatively short. Once all the water in the sandy soil has evaporated, this plant shrivels up and dies. This is not the end of its story though. With a little luck, the plants were pollinated and multiple spoon-shaped fruits have formed on its stems.

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As the dead husk of the plant starts to dry out, its branches curl up into a ball-like mass with most of the fruits tucked away in the interior. There the plant will sit, often for many years, until rain returns. When rain does finally arrive, things happen fast. After all, who knows how long it will be before it rains again. Thanks to a quirk of physiology, the dried tissues of A. hierochuntica are extremely elastic and can return to their normal shape and position once hydrated. As the soil soaks up water, the dried up stems and roots just under the surface also begin taking up water and the stems unfurl.

To call this resurrection is being a bit too generous. The plant is not returning to life. Instead, its dead tissues simply expand as they imbibe liquid. Water usually does not come to the desert without rain and rain is exactly what A. hierochuntica needs to complete its life cycle. Unfurling of its stems exposes its spoon-shaped fruits to the elements. Their convex shape is actually an adaptation for seed dispersal by rain, a mechanism termed ombrohydrochory. When a raindrop hits the fruit, it catapults the seed outward from the dead parent.

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If rains are light, seeds do not get very far. They tend to cluster around the immediate area of their parent. If rains are heavy, however, seeds can travel quite a distance. This is why one will only ever find this species growing in channels. During the rare occasions when those channels fill with water, seeds quickly float away on the current. In fact, experts believe that the buoyancy of A. hierochuntica seed is an adaptation that evolved in response to flooding events. It is quite ironic that water dispersal is such an important factor for a plant growing in some of the driest habitats on Earth.

To aid in germination, the seeds themselves are coated in a material that becomes mucilaginous upon wetting. When the seeds eventually come into contact with the soil, the mucilage sticks to the ground and causes the seeds to adhere to the surface upon drying. This way, they are able to effectively germinate instead of blowing around in the wind.

Again, things happen fast for A. hierochuntica. Most of its seeds will germinate within 12 hours of rainfall. Though they are relatively drought tolerant, the resulting seedlings nonetheless cannot survive without water. As such, their quick germination allows them to make the most out of fleeting wet conditions.

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Occasionally, the balled up husks of these plants will become dislodged from the sand and begin to blow around the landscape like little tumbleweeds. This has led some to suggest that A. hierochuntica utilizes this as a form a seed dispersal, scattering seeds about the landscape as it bounces around in the wind. Though this seems like an appealing hypothesis, experts believe that this is not the best means of disseminating propagules. Seeds dispersed in this way are much less likely to end up in favorable spots for germination. Though it certainly occurs, it is likely that this is just something that happens from time to time rather than something the plant has evolved to do.

In total, the Rose of Jericho is one tough cookie. Thanks to quick germination and growth, it is able to take advantage of those rare times when its desert environment become hospitable.

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

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

Rein In Those Seeds

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Plants living on islands face a bit of a conundrum. In order to get to said islands, the ancestors of those plants had to exhibit extreme seed or spore dispersal strategies. However, if plants are to persist after arriving to an island, long-distance dispersal becomes rather risky. In the case of oceanic islands, seeds or spores that travel too far end up in the water. As such, we often observe an evolutionary reduction in dispersal ability for island residents. 

Islands, however, are not always surrounded by water. You can have "islands" on land as well. The easiest example for most to picture would be the alpine zone of a mountain. Species adapted to these high-elevation habitats find it hard to compete with species native to low-elevation habitats and are therefore stuck on these "islands in the sky." Less obvious are islands created by a specific soil type. 

Take, for instance, gypseous soils. Such soils are the result of large amounts of gypsum deposits at or near the soil surface. Gypseous soils are found in large quantities throughout parts of western North America, North and South Africa, western Asia, Australia, and eastern Spain. They are largely the result of a massive climatic shift that occurred during the Eocene, some 50 million years ago. 

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Massive mountain building events during that time were causing a large reductions in atmospheric CO2 concentrations. The removal of this greenhouse gas via chemical weathering caused a gradual decline in average temperatures around the world. Earth was also becoming a much drier place and throughout the areas mentioned above, hyper-saline lakes began to dry up. As they did, copious amount of minerals, including gypsum, were left behind. 

These mineral-rich soils differ from the surrounding soils in that they contain a lot of salts. Salt makes life incredibly difficult for most terrestrial plants. Life finds a way, however, and a handful of plant species inevitably adapted to these mineral-rich soils, becoming specialists in the process. They are so specialized on these types of soils that they simply cannot compete with other plant species when growing in more "normal" soils. 

Essentially, these gypseous soils function like soil or edaphic islands. Plants specialized in growing there really don't have the option to disperse far and wide. They have to rein it in or risk extirpation. For a group of plants growing in gypseous soils in western North America, this equates to changes in seed morphology. 

Mentzelia is a genus of flowering plants in the family Loasaceae. There are somewhere around 60 to 70 different species, ranging from annuals to perennials, and forbs to shrubs (they are often referred to as blazing stars but since that would lead to too much confusion with Liatris, I will continue to refer to them as Mentzelia).

For most species in this genus, seed dispersal is accomplished by wind. Plants growing on "normal" soils produce seeds with a distinct wing surrounding the seed. A decent breeze will dislodge them from their capsule, causing them blow around. With any luck some of those seeds will land in a suitable spot fer germination, far from their parents. Such is not the case for all Mentzelia though. When researchers took a closer look at species that have specialized on gypseous soils, they found something quite intriguing. 

  Mentzelia  phylogeny showing reduction in seed wings.

Mentzelia phylogeny showing reduction in seed wings.

The wings surrounding the seeds of gypseous Mentzelia were either extremely reduced in size or had disappeared altogether. Just as it makes no sense for a plant living on an oceanic island to disperse its seeds far out into the ocean, it too makes no sense for gypseous Mentzelia to disperse their seeds into soils in which they cannot compete. It is thought that limited dispersal may help reinforce the types of habitat specialization that we see in species like these Mentzelia. The next question that must be answered is whether or not such specialization and limited dispersal comes at the cost of genetic diversity. More work will be needed to understand such dynamics. 

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

Further Reading: [1] [2]

 

Fish: The Unsung Heroes of Seed Dispersal

 Fruits of the tucum palm.

Fruits of the tucum palm.

It goes without saying that effective seed (and spore) dispersal is vital for thriving plant populations. Without it, plant populations will stagnate and disappear. Whereas we know quite a bit about the role animals like birds, bats, and ants play in this process, there is another group of seed dispersers that are proving to be vital to the long-term health and survival of tropical forests around the globe - fish. 

The idea of seed dispersing fish may come as a shock to some but mounting evidence is showing that fruit-eating fish play a major role in the reproductive cycle of many tropical plant species. This is especially true in seasonally flooded tropical forests. To date, more than 100 different fish species have been found with viable seeds in their guts. In fact, some fish species, such as the pacu (Piaractus mesopotamicus), specialize on eating fruits.

 A big ol' pacu looking for its next fruit meal.

A big ol' pacu looking for its next fruit meal.

By monitoring how fruit-eating fish like the pacu behave in their environment, scientists are painting a picture of tropical seed dispersal that is quite remarkable. Take, for instance, the tucum palm (Bactris glaucescens). Native to Brazil's Pantanal, this palm produces large, red fruits and everything from peccaries to iguanas will consume them. However, when eaten by these animals, the seed either don't make it through the gut in one piece or they end up being pooped out into areas unsuitable for germination. Only when the seeds have been consumed by the pacu do they end up in the right place in the right condition. It appears that pacus are the main seed dispersal agent for this palm. 

 A beautiful tucum palm in the dry season.

A beautiful tucum palm in the dry season.

The tucum palm isn't alone either. The seeds of myriad other plant species known to inhabit such seasonally flooded habitats seem to germinate and grow most effectively only after having been dispersed by fish. Pacus are also responsible for a considerable amount of seed dispersal for plants such as Tocoyena formosa (Rubiaceae), Licania parvifolia (Chrysobalanaceae), and Inga uruguensis (Fabaceae). Even outside of the tropics, fish like the channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) are being found to be important seed dispersers of riparian plants such as the eastern swampprivet (Forestiera acuminata).

 Camu-camu ( Myrciaria dubia )

Camu-camu (Myrciaria dubia)

Without fish, these plants would have a hard time with seed dispersal in these types of habitats. Without something moving them around, these seeds would be stuck at the bottom of a river, buried in anoxic mud. As fish migrate into flooded forests, they can move seeds remarkable distances from their parents. When the floods recede, the seeds find themselves primed and ready to usher in the next generation.

 Fruits of the Camu-camu ( Myrciaria dubia ) also benefit from dispersal by fish.

Fruits of the Camu-camu (Myrciaria dubia) also benefit from dispersal by fish.

Not all fish perform this task equally as well. Even within a species, there are differences in the effectiveness of seed dispersal services. Scientists are finding that large fish are most effective at proper seed dispersal. Not only can they consume whole fruits with little to no issue, they are also the fish that are most physically capable of moving large distances. Sadly, humans are seriously disrupting this process in a lot of ways.

For starters, dams and other impediments are cutting off the migratory routs of many fish species. Large fish are no longer able to make it into flooded regions of forest far upstream once a dam is in place. What's more, dams keep large tracts of forest from flooding entirely. As such, fish are no longer able to migrate into these regions, which means less seeds are making it there as well. This is bad news for forest regeneration.

 "Gimme fruit" says local channel cat.

"Gimme fruit" says local channel cat.

It's not just dams hurting fish either. Over-fishing is a serious issue in most water ways. Pacus, for instance, have seen precipitous declines throughout the Amazon over the last few decades. Specifically targeted are large fish. Unfortunately, regulations that were put into place in order to help these fish may actually be harming their seed dispersal activities. Fish under a certain size must be released from any catch, thus a disproportionate amount of large fish are being removed from the system.

Logging is taking quite a toll as well. Floodplain forests have been hit especially hard by logging, both legal and illegal. The lower Amazon River, for example, has almost no natural floodplain forests left. Reports from fish markets in these areas have shown fewer and fewer frugivorous fish each year. It would appear that large fruit-eating fish are disappearing in the areas that need seed dispersal the most. It is clear that something drastic needs to happen. At the very least, fruit-eating fish need more recognition for the ecosystem services they provide.

Forest health and management is a holistic endeavor. We cannot think of organisms in isolation. This is why ecological literacy is so important. We are only now starting to realize the role of large fish in forest regeneration and who knows what kinds of discoveries are just over the horizon. This is why land conservation efforts are so important. We must move to protect wild spaces before they are lost for good. Please consider donating to one of the many great land conservancy agencies around the globe. 

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6]

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

 

Cockroaches & Unexpected Partnerships

Say "cockroach" and most people will start to squirm. These indefatigable insects are maligned the world over because of a handful of species that have settled in quite nicely among human habitats. The world of cockroaches is far more diverse than most even care to realize, and where they occur naturally, these insects provide important ecological services. For instance, over the last decade or so, researchers have added pollination and seed dispersal to the list of cockroach activities. 

That's right, pollination and seed dispersal. It may seem odd to think of roaches partaking in such interactions but a study published in 2008 provides some of the first evidence that roaches are doing more with plants than eating their decaying tissues. After describing a new species of Clusia in French Guiana, researchers set out to investigate what, if anything, was pollinating it. The plant was named Clusia sellowiana and its flowers emitted a strange scent. 

 Cockroach pollinating  C. sellowiana

Cockroach pollinating C. sellowiana

The source of this scent was the chemical acetoin. It seemed to be a rather attractive scent as a small variety of insects were observed visiting the flowers. However, only one insect seemed to be performing the bulk of pollination services for this new species - a small cockroach called Amazonia platystylata. It turns out that the roaches are particularly sensitive to acetoin and although they don't have any specific anatomical features for transferring pollen, their rough exoskeleton nonetheless picks up and deposits ample amounts of the stuff. 

It would appear that C. sellowiana has entered into a rather specific relationship with this species of cockroach. Although this is only the second documentation of roach pollination, it certainly suggests that more attention is needed. This Clusia isn't alone in its interactions with cockroaches either. As I hinted above, roaches can now be added to the list of seed dispersers of a small parasitic plant native to Japan. 

 (A) M. humile fruit showing many minute seeds embedded in the less juicy pulp. (B) Fallen fruits. (C) Blattella nipponica feeding on the fruit. (D) Cockroach poop with seeds. (E) Stained cockroach-ingested seeds

Monotropastrum humile looks a lot like Monotropa found growing in North America. Indeed, these plants are close cousins, united under the family Ericaceae. Interestingly enough, it was only recently found that camel crickets are playing an important role in the seed dispersal of this species. However, it looks like they aren't the only game in town. Researchers have also found that a forest dwelling cockroach called Blattella nipponica serves as a seed disperser as well. 

The roaches were observed feeding on the fruits of this parasitic plant, consuming pulp and seed alike. What's more, careful observation of their poop revealed that seeds of M. humile passed through the digestive tract unharmed. Cockroaches can travel great distances and therefore may provide an important service in distributing the seeds of a rather obscure parasitic plant. To think that this is an isolated case seems a bit naive. It seems to me like we should pay a little more attention to what cockroaches are doing in forests around the world. 

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

Further Reading: [1] [2]

Are Crickets Dispersing Seeds of Parasitic Plants?

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Parasitic plants lead a rather unique lifestyle. Many have foregone photosynthesis entirely by living off fungi or their photosynthetic neighbors. Indeed, there are many anatomical and physiological adaptations that are associated with making a living parasitically. Whether they are full parasites or only partial, one thing that many parasitic plants have in common are tiny, dust-like seeds. Their reduced size and thin seed coats are generally associated with wind dispersal, however, there are always exceptions to the rule. Recent evidence has demonstrated that a handful of parasitic plants have evolved in response to a rather unique seed dispersal agent - camel crickets.

A research team based out of Japan recently published a paper describing a rather intriguing seed dispersal situation involving three species of parasitic plants (Yoania amagiensis - Orchidaceae, Monotropastrum humile - Ericaceae, and Phacellanthus tubiflorus - Orobanchaceae). These are all small, achlorophyllous herbs that either parasitize trees directly through their roots or they parasitize the mycorrhizal fungi associated with said trees. What's more, each of these species are largely inhabitants of the dense, shaded understory of rich forests.

These sorts of habitats don't lend well to wind dispersal. The closed forest canopy and dense understory really limits wind flow. It would appear that these three plant species have found away around this issue. Each of these plants invest in surprisingly fleshy fruits for their parasitic lifestyle. Also, their seeds aren't as dusk-like as many of their relatives. They are actually quite fleshy. This is odd considering the thin margins many parasitic plants live on. Any sort of investment in costly tissues must have considerable benefits for the plants if they are to successfully get their genes into the next generation.

Fleshy fruits like this are usually associated with a form of animal dispersal called endozoochory. Anyone that has ever found seed-laden bird poop understands how this process works. Still, simply getting an animal to eat your seeds isn't necesarly enough for successful dispersal. Seeds must survive their trip through the gut and come out the other end relatively in tact for the process to work. That is where a bit of close observation came into play.

After hours of observation, the team found that the usual frugivorous suspects such as birds and small mammals showed little to no interest in the fruits of these parasites. Beetles were observed munching on the fruits a bit but the real attention was given by a group of stumpy-looking nocturnal insects collectively referred to as camel crickets. Again, eating the fruits is but one step in the process of successful seed dispersal. The real question was whether or not the seeds of these parasites survived their time inside either of these insect groups. To answer this question, the team employed feeding trials.

They compared seed viability by offering up fruits to beetles and crickets both in the field and back in the lab. Whereas both groups of insects readily consumed the fruits and seeds, only the crickets appeared to offer the greatest chances of a seed surviving the process. Beetles never pooped out viable seeds. The strong mandibles of the beetles fatally damaged the seeds. This was not the case for the camel crickets. Instead, these nocturnal insects frequently pooped out tens to hundreds of healthy, viable seeds. Considering the distances the crickets can travel as well as their propensity for enjoying similar habitats as the plants, this stacks up to potentially be quite a beneficial interaction. 

The authors are sure to note that these results do not suggest that camel crickets are the sole seed dispersal agents for these plants. Still, the fact that they are effective at moving large amounts of seeds is tantalizing to say the least. Taken together with other evidence such as the fact that the fruits of these plants often give off a fermented odor, which is known to attract camel crickets, the fleshy nature of their fruits and seeds, and the fact that these plants present ripe seed capsules at or near the soil surface suggests that crickets (and potentially other insects) may very well be important factors in the reproductive ecology of these plants.

Coupled with previous evidence of cricket seed dispersal, it would appear that this sort of relationship between plants and crickets is more widespread than we ever imagined. It is interesting to note that relatives of both the plants in this study and the camel crickets occur in both temperate and tropical habitats around the globe. We very well could be overlooking a considerable component of seed dispersal ecology via crickets. Certainly more work is needed.

Photo Credits: [1]

Further Reading: [1] [2]

Caliochory - A Freshly Coined Form of Seed Dispersal

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A new form of seed dispersal has been described. It involves birds but not in the sense we traditionally think. Everyone understands how effectively birds disperse seeds contained in small fruits such as berries, or as barbs attached to their feathers. It took finding an out-of-place patch of Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) for lead author Dr. Robert Warren to start looking at bird dispersal in a different light. 

While working in his yard, he noticed a patch of Japanese stiltgrass growing out of a window planter some 6 feet off the ground. Japanese stiltgrass can be highly invasive but its seeds aren't adapted for vertical dispersal. However, it does employ a mixed mating system composed of outcrossing flowers at the tips of the spikes along with cleistogamous flowers whose seeds remain on the stem. Taking out a ladder, Warren discovered that the grass was growing out of a bird nest. It would appear that stiltgrass stems containing seeds were incorporated into the nest as building material and then germinated the following year. Thus began a deeper investigation into the realm of nest seeds.

Teaming up with researchers at Yale and the United States Forest Service, they set out to determine how often seeds are contained within bird nests. They collected nests from 23 different bird species and spread them over seed trays. After ruling out seeds from potential contamination sources (feces, wind, etc.), they irrigated the nests to see what would germinate. The results are quite remarkable to say the least.

Over 2,000 plants, hailing from 37 plant families successfully germinated. In total, 144 different plant species grew from these germination trials. The seeds appeared to be coming in from the various plant materials as well as the mud used to build these nests. What's more, nearly half of the seeds they found came from cleistogamous sources. Birds whose nests contained the highest amounts of seeds were the American robbin (Turdus migratorius) and the eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis). These results have led the authors to coin the term "caliochory," 'calio' being Greek for nest and 'chory' being Greek for spread.

It has long been assumed that cleistogamous reproduction kept seeds in the immediate area of the parent plant. This evidence suggests that it might actually be farther reaching than we presumed. What's more, these numbers certainly hint that this otherwise unreported method of seed dispersal may be far more common than we ever realized. Whether or not plants have evolved in response to such dispersal methods remains to be tested. Still, considering the diversity of birds, their nesting habits, and the availability of various plant materials, these findings are quite remarkable!

Photo Credits: [1]

Further Reading: [1]

Birds Work a Double Shift For Osmoxylon

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Plants go to great lengths to achieve pollination. Some can be tricky, luring in pollinators with a promise of food where there is none. Others, however, really sweeten the deal with ample food reserves. At least one genus of plants has taken this to the extreme, using the same techniques for pollination as it does for seed dispersal. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the genus Osmoxylon.

Comprised of roughly 60 species spread around parts of southeast Asia and the western Pacific, the genus Osmoxylon hail from a variety of habitats. Some live in the deep shade of the forest understory whereas others prefer more open conditions. They range in size from medium sized shrubs to small trees and, upon flowering, their place within the family Araliaceae becomes more apparent.

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Look closely at the flowers, however, and you might notice a strange pattern. It would appear that as soon as flowers develop, the plant has already produced berries. How could this be? Are there cleistogamous flowers we aren't aware of? Not quite. The truth, in fact, is quite peculiar. Of the various characteristics of the genus, one that repeatedly stands out is the production of pseudo-fruits. As the fertile flowers begin to produce pollen, these fake fruits begin to ripen. There aren't any seed inside. In truth, I don't think they can technically be called fruits at all. So, why are they there?

Although actual observations will be required to say for sure, the running hypothesis is that these pseudo-fruits have evolved in response to the presence of birds. They are quite fleshy and would make a decent meal. It is thought that as birds land on the umbel to eat these pseudo-fruits, they invariably pick up pollen in the process. Each plant the birds then visit dusts off its own pollen while picking up pollen from previous visits. Thus, pollination is achieved.

The relationship with birds doesn't end here. Like other members of this family, pollination results in the formation of actual fruits full of seeds. Birds are known for their seed dispersal abilities and the Osmoxylon capitalize on that as well. As such, the reproductive input of their avian neighbors is thought to be two-fold. Not only are birds potentially great pollinators, they are also great seed dispersers, taking fruits far and wide and depositing them in nutrient-rich packets wherever they poop.

Photo Credits: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1]

Large Parrots And Their Influence On Amazonian Ecosystems

Parrots, especially the larger species, have long been thought to be a bane to plant reproduction. Anyone that has watched a parrot feed may understand why this has been the case. With their incredible beaks, parrots make short work of even the toughest seeds. However, this assumption is much too broad. In fact, recent research suggests that entire Amazonian ecosystems may have parrots to thank.

Bolivia's Amazonian savannas are remarkable and dynamic ecosystems. These seasonally flooded grasslands are dotted with forest islands dominated by the motacú palm (Attalea princeps). These forest patches are an integral part of the local ecology and have thus received a lot of attention both culturally and scientifically. The dominance of motacú palm poses an intriguing question - what maintains them on the landscape?

The fruits of this palm are quite large and fleshy. Some have hypothesized that this represents an anachronism of sorts, with the large fruit having once been dispersed by now extinct Pleistocene megafauna. Despite this assumption, these forest islands persist. What's more, motacú palms still manage to germinate. Obviously there was more to this story than meets the theoretical eye. As it turns out, macaws seem to be the missing piece of this ecological puzzle. 

Researchers found that three species of macaw (Ara ararauna, A. glaucogularis, and A. severus) comprised the main seed dispersers of this dominant palm species. What's more, they manage to do so over great distances. You see, the palms offer up vast quantities of fleshy fruits but not much in the way of a good perch on which to eat them. Parrots such as macaws cannot take an entire seed down in one gulp. They must manipulate it with their beak and feet in order to consume the flesh. To do this they need to find a perch.

Suitable perches aren't always in the immediate area so the macaws take to the wing along with their seedy meals. Researchers found that these three macaw species will fly upwards of 1,200 meters to perch and eat. Far from being the seed predators they were assumed to be, the birds are actually quite good for the seeds. The fleshy outer covering is consumed and the seed itself is discarded intact. This suggests that preferred perching trees become centers of palm propagation and they have the parrots to thank. 

Indeed, seedling motacú palms are frequently found within 1 - 5 meters of the nearest perching tree. No other seed disperser even came close to the macaws. What's more, introduced cattle (thought to mimic the seed dispersing capabilities of some extinct megafauna) had a markedly negative effect on palm seed germination thanks to issues such as soil compaction, trampling, and herbivory. Taken together, this paints a radically different picture of the forces structuring this unique Amazonian community.

Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons

Further Reading: [1]

The Squirting Cucumber

Plants have gone to great lengths when it comes to seed dispersal. One of the most bizarre examples of this can be found in an ambling Mediterranean plant affectionately referred to as the squirting cucumber. As funny as this may sound, the name could not be more appropriate. 

Known scientifically as Ecballium elaterium, the squirting cucumber can be found growing along roadsides and other so-called "waste places" from the Mediterranean regions of western Europe and northern Africa all the way to parts of temperate Asia. It is the only member of its genus, which resides in the family Cucurbitaceae. It is a rather toxic species as well, with all parts of the plant producing a suite of chemicals called cucurbitacins. In total, it seems like a rather unassuming plant. It goes through the motions of growing and flowering throughout the summer months but the real show begins once its odd fruits have ripened. 

A cursory inspection would not reveal anything readily different about its fruit. Following fertilization, they gradually swell into modest sized version of the sorts you expect from this family of plants. It's what is going on within the fruit that is rather interesting. As the fruit reaches maturity, the tissues surrounding the seeds begin to break down. The breakdown of this material creates a lot of mucilaginous liquid, causing internal pressure to build. And I mean a lot of pressure. Measurements have revealed that at peak ripening, pressures within the fruit can reach upwards of 27 atm, which is 27 times the amount of atmospheric pressure we experience when standing at sea level!

 A cross section of the fruit showing the weakened connection point.

A cross section of the fruit showing the weakened connection point.

At the same time, the attachment point of the stem or "peduncle" begins to weaken. With all that pressure building, it isn't long before something has to give. This is exactly the moment when the squirting cucumber earns its name. The stem breaks away from the fruit, revealing a small hole. Within a fraction of a second, all of that pressurized mucilage comes rocketing outward carrying the precious cargo of seeds with it. 

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The result is pretty remarkable. Seeds are launched anywhere from 6 to 20 feet (1 - 6 m) away from the parent plant. This form of dispersal falls under the category of ballistic seed dispersal and it is incredibly effective. Getting away from the competitive environment immediately surrounding your parents is the first step in the success of any plant. The squirting cucumber does just that. It is no wonder then that this is an incredibly successful plant species. 

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

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

A Beautiful and Bizarre Gentian

There is something about gentians that I am drawn to. I can't quite put my finger on it but it definitely has something to do with their interesting pollination strategies. One of the coolest gentian species I have ever met grows in the mountainous regions of western North America.

Meet Frasera speciosa a.k.a. the monument plant (a.k.a. elkweed). It is only one of 14 species in the genus. This fascinating species (as well as its relatives) lives out most of its life as a rosette of large, floppy leaves. The monument plant is what is known as a "monocarpic perennial", meaning it lives for many years as a rosette before flowering once and dying. It has been recorded that some individuals can be upwards of 30 years old by the time they flower!

This reproductive strategy brings with it a specific set of challenges but yet, if balanced correctly, offers many advantages. For starters, if you only flower once in a life time, you best make it count. The good news is, if flowering events are rare and widely spaced, this is a good strategy for avoiding herbivores. Such an irregular reproductive lifestyle means that the likelihood of a flowering population getting munched on is greatly reduced.

The same goes for seeds. If setting seed is a rare and widely spaced event, the likelihood of seed predation is also reduced. This is what is known as predator avoidance behavior. While it is not quite understood how plants synchronize flowering (though environmental conditions do play a role), it has been found that, for at least some populations, it alternates in intervals of 3 and 7 years. In essence, each flowering event can be seen as mast event. This keeps the overall impact of any potential herbivores and seed predators to a minimum.

This synchronous flowering strategy can also be beneficial for insuring cross pollination. The flowers are large and seemingly quite attractive to many different species of pollinators. By flowering all at once, a population is offering a tempting bonanza for pollinators that ensures many visits to each flower, thus increasing the chances of reproductive success. Since each individual plant invests all of its collective energy into a single flowering event, more energy is allocated to producing flowers and seed than if it flowered year after year.

The interesting habits of this plant's lifestyle don't end there. Each plant is essentially a pretty awesome parent! It has been found that seeds that are buried under the decomposing remains of a parent plant not only germinate better but the resulting seedlings also have a much higher rate of survival. This is good news for two big reasons.

For one, the decomposing remains enrich the surrounding soil while also creating a humid micro climate that is very conducive to growth. Second, the fact that they all germinate and grow relatively close to the parent plant, means that the density of young plants closely mimics that of the parental population. If the seeds were to be dispersed great distances from each other, it would be much more difficult to synchronize a flowering event and to ensure sufficient pollination. This way, entire populations grow up together in this nursery made from the remains of their parents. This is such a cool genus and I hope you get the chance to meet one for yourself.

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

The Fetid Adderstongue

"Fetid adderstongue" seems like a pretty ominous name for such a small and beautiful plant. Hailing from coastal North America, the genus Scoliopus is most at home in the deep shaded forests of California and Oregon. Spring is the best time to see these little lilies and once you know a little bit about their ecology, such encounters are made all the more interesting.

There are two species nestled within this genus - S. bigelovii and S. hallii. Both are similar in that they are plants of deep shaded environments, however, you are more likely to find S. hallii growing along the banks of wooded streams. As is typical of many members of the lily family, their flowers are quite beautiful in appearance. The trick is finding them. Though quite showy, they are rather small and their dark coloration causes them to blend in quite well in their shaded environments. That is all fine and dandy for a species that relies more on smell rather than looks to attract pollinators.

As the common name suggests, the flowers of the fetid adderstongues give off a bit of an odor. I have heard it best described as "musty." The flowers of these two species attract a lot of fungus gnats. Although these tiny little flies are generally viewed as sub par pollinators for most flowering plants, the fetid adderstongues seem to do quite well with them. What they lack in robust pollination behavior, they make up for in sheer numbers. There are a lot of fungus gnats hanging around wet, shaded forests.

The flowers themselves are borne on tall stalks. Though they look separate, they are actually an extension of a large, underground umbel. Once pollination has been achieved, the flower stalks begin to bend over putting the developing ovaries much closer to the ground. Each seed comes equip with a fleshy little attachment called an eliasome. These are essentially ant bait. Once mature, the seeds are released near the base of the parent. Hungry ants that are out foraging find the fleshy attachment much to their liking.

They bring the seeds back to the nest, remove the eliasomes, and discard the seed into a trash midden. Inside the ants nest, seeds are well protected, surrounded by nutrient-rich compost, and as some evidence is starting to suggest, guarded against damaging fungal invaders. In other words, the plants have tricked ants into planting their seeds for them. This is a very successful strategy that is adopted by many different plant species the world over.

Though small, the fetid adderstongues are two plants with a lot of character. They are definitely a species you want to keep an eye out for the next time you find yourself in the forests of western North America. If you do end up finding some, just take some time to think of all the interesting ecological interactions these small lilies maintain.

Photo Credits: [1] [2]

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

Thanks, Ducks!

Recent research suggests that certain duck species are crucial for maintaining wetland plant diversity in highly fragmented landscapes. Functioning wetlands are becoming more and more isolated each year. As more land is gobbled up for farming and development, the ability for plants to get their seeds into new habitats is made even more difficult. Luckily, many plants utilize animals for this job. Seeds can become stuck in fur or feathers, and some can even pass through the gut unharmed. What's more, animals can move great distances in a short amount of time. For wetland plants, the daily movements of ducks seems to be paramount. 

By tracking the daily movements of mallards, a team of researchers from Utretch University were able to quantify how crucial these water fowl are for moving seeds around. What they found was quite remarkable. In autumn and winter, the diet of mallards switches over to seeds. Not all seeds that a mallard eats get digested. Many pass through the gut unharmed. Additionally, mallards are strong flyers. On any given day they can travel great distances in search of winter foraging grounds. In the evenings, they return to roosting sites with a high degree of fidelity. 

The research team was able to demonstrate that their movements cover even greater distances in highly fragmented landscapes. It's these daily migrations that are playing a major role in maintaining plant diversity between distant wetlands. This is especially important for wetlands that function as roost sites. Whereas mallards distribute around 7% of the surviving seeds they eat among foraging sites, that number jumps to 34% for surviving seeds at roost sites. Given the sheer number of mallards on the landscape, these estimates can really add up. 

It is likely that without mallards, North American wetlands would be much less diverse given their increasingly isolated nature. However, not all seeds are dispersed equally. Small seeds are far more likely to pass through the gut of a duck unharmed, meaning only a portion of the plant species that grow in these habitats are getting a helping hand (wing?). Still, the importance of these birds cannot be overlooked. The next time you see a mallard, thank it for maintaining wetland plant diversity. 

Photo Credits: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1]

The Explosive Dwarf Mistletoes

I used to think mistletoes were largely a southern phenomenon, preferring regions with mild or even no winters. Then I was introduced to the dwarf mistletoes in the genus Arceuthobium. These odd parasites can be found growing throughout the northern hemisphere. Their affinity for conifers has landed them on the watch list of many a forester yet, despite their economic implications, the dwarf mistletoes are fascinating parasitic plants. 

First and foremost, these are aggressive little plants. They vary in their host specificity. Some species can grow on a wide variety of conifer species from Abies balsamea (balsam fir), Larix laricina (American larch), to Pinus strobus (eastern white pine), whereas others are more specialized, preferring only spruces (Picea spp.). Regardless, infestations of these parasites can do some interesting things to conifer stands. 

Similar to other mistletoes, the dwarfs are stem parasites. They penetrate into their hosts vascular tissues and set up shop, sucking up water and photosynthates and giving nothing in return. Because of this, large infestations can seriously drain their host trees as they themselves have reduced or even no photosynthetic capacity. Additionally, they interfere with nutrient and hormone flows throughout the branches of their host. Such disruptions can result in the formation of dense clusters of branches called "witches brooms." Some dwarf mistletoe infestations can become so intense that they effectively girdle their host tree.

In natural settings, this serves an ecological function. By weakening their hosts, dwarf mistletoes can leave room for other plant species to take root. They also keep one species from becoming too dominant. As such, mistletoe infestations can actually increase plant diversity in the long run. Dwarf mistletoe infestations only become an issue once humans get involved. They can cause serious financial issues for foresters as well as damage important or valued specimen trees. In our highly fragmented forests, their natural behavior can get in the way of human ideals. 

All of this talk of damage can distract us from just how amazing some of these species really are from an organismal standpoint. For instance, the lodgepole pine dwarf mistletoe, Arceuthobium americanum, is capable of thermogenesis. Unlike the other examples of thermogenesis in the plant world, this has nothing to do with flowers. Instead, thermogenesis in A. americanum is used as a seed dispersal agent. 

The dwarf mistletoes don't rely on fleshy fruits to get their seeds from one tree to another. Instead, they utilize ballistic means. As their seed pods mature, they gradually swell. Once pressure is great enough, the seed pods erupt, sending their sticky seeds flying through the canopy at speeds of up to 62 mph (100 km/h)! If lucky, the seeds will stick to the branches of a viable host or be transported there in the fur or feathers of an animal. For A. americanum, the eruption of its seed pods is triggered by heat. Using specialized metabolic pathways at the cellular level, A. americanum is able to heat its seed pods up to ~2 °C warmer than its surroundings, thus triggering its pods to explode. 

Pretty incredible for a species so often labelled as a pest. 

Photo Credit: [1]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4]

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]

On Crickets and Seed Dispersal

The world of seed dispersal strategies is fascinating. Since the survival of any plant species requires that its seed find a suitable place to germinate, it is no wonder then that there are myriad ways in which plants disseminate their propagules. Probably my favorite strategies to ponder are those involving diplochory. Diplochory is a fancy way of saying that seed dispersal involves two or more dispersal agents. Probably the most obvious to us are those that utilize fruit. For example, any time a bird eats a fruit and poops out the seeds elsewhere, diplochory has happened.

Less familiar but equally as cool forms of diplochory involve insect vectors. We have discussed myrmecochory (ant dispersal) in the past as well as a unique form of dispersal in which seeds mimic animal dung and are dispersed by dung beetles. But what about other insects? Are there more forms of insect seed dispersal out there? Yes there are. In fact, a 2016 paper offers evidence of a completely overlooked form of insect seed dispersal in the rainforests of Brazil. The seed dispersers in this case are crickets.

Yes, you read that correctly - crickets. Crickets have been largely ignored as potential seed dispersers. Most are omnivores that eat everything from leaves to seeds and even other insects. One report from New Zealand showed that a large species of cricket known as the King weta can disperse viable seeds in its poop after consuming fruits. However, this is largely thought to be incidental. Despite this, few plant folk have ever considered looking at this melodic group of insects... until now. 

The team who published the paper noticed some interesting behavior between crickets and seeds of plants in the family Marantaceae. Plants in this group attach a fleshy structure to their seeds called an aril. The function of this aril is to attract potential seed dispersers. By offering up seeds from various members of the family, the research team were able to demonstrate that seed dispersal by crickets in this region is quite common. Even more astounding, they found that at least six different species of cricket were involved in removing seeds from the study area. What's more, these crickets only ate the aril, leaving the seed behind.

The question of whether this constitutes effective seed dispersal remains to be seen. Still, this research suggests some very interesting things regarding crickets as seed dispersal agents. Not only did the crickets in this study remove the same amount of seeds as ants, they also removed larger seeds and took them farther than any ant species. Since only the aril is consumed, such behavior can seriously benefit large-seeded plants. Also, whereas ant seed dispersal occurs largely during daylight hours, cricket dispersal occurs mostly at night, thus adding more resolution to the story of seed dispersal in these habitats. I am very interested to see if this sort of cricket/seed interaction happens elsewhere in the world.

Photo Credits: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1]

 

A Recently Discovered Species From Brazil Plants Its Own Seeds

Life on the ground is tough in the rainforest. There is ample competition and extremely fast rates of decomposition. Anything that can give a plant an advantage, however slight, can mean the difference between death and survival. For a recently discovered plant, this means planting its own seeds.

Spigelia genuflexa was first described in 2011. It was found in northeastern Brazil in an area known as Bahia. It is a small plant, maxing out around 20 cm in height. In actuality, two growth forms have been recognized, a tall form, which produces flowers at heights of 10-20 cm, and a short form that produces flowers at heights of about 1 cm. It has been placed in the family Loganiaceae, making it a distant cousin of the North American Indian pink. It blooms during the rainy season, throwing up a couple of small white and pink flowers. At this point, no pollinators have been identified and morphological evidence would suggest it most often self fertilizes. Overall it is an adorable little plant.

The coolest aspect of this new species is how it manages seed dispersal. S. genuflexa exhibits an interesting form of reproduction called "geocarpy." In other words, this diminutive species plants its own seeds. After fertilization, the flowering stems start to bend towards the ground. In the tall form, the ripe fruits are deposited on the soil surface. The small form does something a bit different. It doesn't stop once it touches the ground. The stem continues to push the fruits down into the soil. This behavior was only discovered after the plant had been collected. Back in the lab, the researchers noticed the flowering stems ducking down under the moss they were growing in. By doing this, the parent plants are helping their precious seeds avoid predation and the myriad other threats to seed survival, thus giving them a head start on germination.

Photo Credit: Alex Popovkin

Further Reading: [1]

 

Sequential Ripening

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There are few things better than hiking on a hot summer day and coming across a big patch of ripe blackberries and/or raspberries. If you're anything like me then you promptly gorge yourself on handfuls of these sweet aggregate fruits. However, the genus Rubus never gives its fruit away all at once. Although this may seem like a pain for us humans, there is good reason for it.

The answer to this ripening strategy lies in the seed dispersers. A multitude of animals feed on the fruit of the genus Rubus but by and large the best seed dispersers are birds. Rubus fruits begin to ripen around the time when many birds are beginning to ramp up their food intake to prep for either migration or the long winter to come. Regardless, birds can travel great distances and thus can spread seeds via their droppings wherever they go.

If Rubus were to ripen their fruit all at once, only a handful of birds would make use of the entire seasons reproductive effort. This means that all the seeds of an individual plant would likely fall to the ground in the general vicinity of the parent. By sequentially ripening their fruit, Rubus ensure that their seeds will not only be available for a few weeks to a couple of months, it also ensures that birds, as well as many other animals, will be involved in the distribution of seeds. It's not just the genus Rubus that does this either. Plenty of other berry producing plants ripen their fruitss sequentially. It is a wonderfully successful strategy to persuade mobile organisms to do exactly what the plants require. 

Photo Credit: Nicholas A. Tonelli (http://bit.ly/1q6Gvja)

Further Reading:
http://bit.ly/29ghcwL

Dung Seeds

There are a lot of interesting seed dispersal mechanisms out there. It makes sense too because effective seed dispersal is one of the most important factors in a plant's life cycle. It is no wonder then that plants have evolved myriad ways to achieve this. Everything from wind to birds to mammals and even ants have been recruited for this task. Now, thanks to a group of researchers in South Africa, we can add dung beetles to this list.

That's right, dung beetles. These little insects are famous the world over for their dung rolling lifestyle. These industrious beetles are quite numerous and play an important role in the decomposition of feces on the landscape. Without them, the world would be a gross place. They don't do this for us, of course. Instead, dung beetles both consume the dung and lay their eggs on the balls. They are often seen rolling these balls across the landscape until they find the perfect spot to bury it where other dung-feeding animals won't find it. It is this habit that a plant known scientifically as Ceratocaryum argenteum has honed in on.

The seeds of this grass relative are hard and pungent. Researchers questioned why the plant would produce such smelly seeds. After all, the scent would hypothetically make it easier for seed predators to find them. However, the typical seed predators of this region such as birds and rodents show no real interest in them. What's more, when offered seeds directly, rodents only ate seeds in which the tough, smelly coat had been removed. Using cameras, the researchers studied the behavior of these animals time and time again. It was only after viewing hours of video that they made their discovery.

Although they weren't big enough to trip the cameras themselves, incidental footage caught dung beetles checking out the seeds and rolling them away. As it turns out, the scent and appearance (which closely mimics that of antelope dung) tricks the dung beetles into thinking they found the perfect meal. As such, the dung beetles do exactly what the plant needs - they bury the seeds. This is a dead end for the dung beetle. Only after a seed has been buried do they realize that it is both inedible and an unsuitable nursery. Nonetheless, the drive for reproduction is so strong that the plant is able to successfully trick the dung beetles into dispersing their seeds.

Photo Credit: Nicky vB (bit.ly/1WVgs0G) and Nature Plants

Further Reading:
http://www.nature.com/articles/nplants2015141

The Evolution of a Helicopter

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The whirring helicopter seeds of modern day conifers (as well as a handful of other tree species) are truly marvels of evolution. We humans have yet to top the simple efficiency of this form of locomotion. It is easy to see how such seed anatomy benefits a tree. Instead of plummeting to the ground and struggling under the shade of its parents, winged seeds are often carried great distances by the breeze. Such a dispersal mechanism is so effective that multiple tree lineages have converged on a single asymmetrical wing design of their samaras.  

The key to this type of seed dispersal lies in the movement of the seed in the air. The whirring motion allows the seeds to stay airborne as they are carried away from their cones. It would be all too easy to argue that any intermediate must be doomed to failure. However, this is not the case. A rich collection of 270 million year old fossils discovered in Texas is shining light on how at least one lineage of conifers settled in on this wonderful adaptation for seed dispersal. 

 Artists reconstruction of a seed-bearing shoot of  Manifera talaris . Drawing by Ivo Duijnstee

Artists reconstruction of a seed-bearing shoot of Manifera talaris. Drawing by Ivo Duijnstee

Instead of producing one type of winged seed, an ancient species of conifer known scientifically as Manifera talaris produced multiple different samara designs. Some were symmetrical, others were double winged, and still others matched what we would readily recognize as a samara today. It would seem that early conifers were “trying out” many different forms of wind dispersed seed designs. Manifera talaris was alive during the early Permian. At that time, there were not many animals alive (that we are aware of) that could function as seed dispersers for conifers. Instead, these early trees relied on the wind to do the work for them. 

Though these fossils offer a unique window into the evolution of winged seeds, they do not give any indication as to how each seed designs would have performed. For paleobotanist Dr. Cindy Looy, this meant a chance to have a little fun with science. She and her colleagues built functional paper models of each of the samara types represented in the fossils. By attaching the paper wings to comparably sized seeds from an extant conifer, she was able to test the flight performance of each of these samara types. What she found was quite interesting. 

As it turns out, symmetric and asymmetric double-winged seeds performed quite poorly. They fluttered to the ground, barely achieving any rotation. Contrast this with the asymmetric single-winged seeds, which stayed airborne for twice as long as any other samara design. What this research shows is that early conifers were, in a sense, "experimenting" with different samara designs. Those designs that allowed for greater seed dispersal produced more trees that did the same. 

Photo Credit: Dr. Cindy Looy

Further Reading: [1]