Jul 5

Most pollinator-plant relationships follow the same trend – animal lands on plant, gets covered in pollen which it then transfers onto another plant of the same species – but there are many plants that go against the norm, and have a weird and wonderful method of ensuring that their pollen gets to where it needs to be.

A honey bee may be the first thing that springs to your mind when you think of pollination – be prepared for this to change!

Aroids

Plants in the Araceae family, also known as ‘aroids’, act as a kind-of bed and breakfast for insects. These plants attract a wide range of insect pollinators by producing scents which vary between rotting flesh and sweet fruit, and many produce heat to help with the dispersal of their aroma. Most aroid species will trap any insect that comes into contact with its leaves inside a dungeon-like structure which it is unable to escape from. While the insect is trapped, the plant produces nectar to feed it and keep it alive and after 24 hours the male flowers mature and cover the insect with pollen. The dungeon then collapses and allows the pollen-covered insect to escape and find another aroid to pollinate, starting the process again!

The flower of titan arum, the plant that produces the world’s largest inflorescence

Orchids

Orchids are an extremely diverse plant group and their methods of attracting pollinators are variable between species. Most orchids just have one or two dedicated pollinators which can be bees, wasps, flies, ants or butterflies, and this means that if becomes extinct, the other will likely share the same fate.

Ophrys species have a very sneaky way of attracting male bees to their flowers. They have evolved their scent over time to mimic the pheromones released by a female bee and even have a similar appearance, which led to the designation of their common name – ‘bee orchids’. When a male picks up the scent, it lands on the flower of the bee orchid and repeatedly attempts copulation, all the while being covered in the plant’s pollen. Another type of orchid that encourages bee romance are bucket orchids, which produce a cologne for male bees that is irresistible to females.

Another orchid, Oncidium planilabre, has a less romantic approach to attracting male bees, and mimics a male rather than a female, which encourages attacks from male bees. When the male bee attacks the orchid, it is covered in pollen which is then transferred to the next bee-like flower that it takes a dislike to.

The bumble bee orchid, an Ophrys species

Another orchid with a strange pollination method is Holcoglossum amesianum. This amazing plant has the capacity to move its flowers 360 degrees to transfer pollen onto its stigma and does not rely on any external forces whatsoever.

Fig wasps and figs

Fig wasps and figs have a completely dependent symbiotic relationship. The fascinating pollination cycle of the fig tree begins when a female wasp enters one of the fruits through an extremely small opening, often losing its wings and antennae on its way in. Once inside, the female lays her eggs and dies shortly after. When the eggs have hatched, the male and female offspring have very different functions. The wingless males explore the inside of the fig, trying to find a female to mate with and once they have mated, they bore exit pathways to the outside of the fig then also die. The female offspring, once they have mated, collect pollen from the male flowers inside the fig and then use the pathways created by the males to escape. The females then search for a new fig fruit to pollinate and the whole cycle begins again.

The fruit of Ficus carica, a species of fig

Axinaea species

Plants in the Axinaea genus have large, bulb-like structures on their stamens which entice passing birds. As the bird touches the structure with its bill, it explodes and covers the bird’s face with pollen. As the bird continues to forage, the pollen is transferred onto other plants.

Axinaea sessilifolia

Giant Amazon water lily

At the beginning of its pollination cycle, the giant Amazon water lily produces female flowers which have white petals and emit a strong fruity scent that attracts beetles. The flower itself is around 10 degrees Celsius warmer than the ambient temperature – another factor that makes it irresistible to beetles. When the beetles arrive and begin to feed on the nectar, the flower slowly closes and traps the beetles inside. Throughout the day the petals of the flower turn pink and it undergoes a sex change, turning into a male and covering the beetles in pollen. When the flower eventually reopens, it releases the pollen-covered beetles who are then free to continue their search for nectar.

 

Find out more about pollination and the slightly more ‘normal’ approach that most plants have on our new topic page.

Mar 21

Photographs on the Arkive website  have helped two naturalists who had never met and work around 200 miles (310 kms) apart to identify two previously unrecorded species of one of Earth’s oldest flowering plants: the magnolia.

In 2010, Roberto Pedraza Ruiz gave Arkive a series of animal and plant photos he had taken in a life-rich cloud forest within eastern Mexico’s Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve. One of the photos he donated was identified as being the magnolia, Magnolia dealbata, classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

But the image raised questions for Dr José Antonio Vázquez, a botanist at the University of Guadalajara, when he came across it during a search of Arkive’s 16,000 free-to-view online flora and fauna fact-files.

Magnolia rzedowskiana flower

It was this image that first raised questions. It is now identified as a Magnolia rzedowskiana flower.

As Roberto explains: “For Dr Vázquez, the specimen in the photo seemed unusual and he requested that I sent him more pictures. So I made several more trips to the cloud forest, documenting the flowers and fruits of the trees until finally receiving confirmation that I had photographed not only one but two completely new species of magnolias.”

Two new species of magnolia discovered

The first of the finds, originally identified on Arkive, has already been documented and has been given the name Magnolia rzedowskiana, after Dr Jerzy Rzedoswski, Mexico’s most eminent botanist who has collected and documented over 50,000 species and celebrating his 90th birthday this year.  A description of the second specimen is about to published and will be named Magnolia pedrazae, after Roberto.

He says: “This is without doubt the highest honour that a conservationist and nature photographer can receive. It means that this incredibly special tree – an endemic of the Sierra Gorda and product of an evolutionary process that spans millennia – has become part of the family.”

Magnolia rzedowskiana

Magnolia rzedowskiana

Lucie Muir, Director of Wildscreen, added: “We were absolutely thrilled when Roberto told us that a new species of magnolia had been identified because of botanist looking through the images on the Arkive website. It’s amazing that new species are still being discovered and that on this occasion Arkive was part of the discovery story.”

Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda

The use of the Pedraza name is especially apt as it was Roberto’s parents who started the grassroots movement which led to the creation of the Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda (GESG) to look after a section of the eastern Sierra Madre where the high peaks, rain shadow, remoteness and latitude mean biodiversity is especially rich.

Roberto Pedraza Ruiz

Roberto Pedraza Ruiz

Roberto grew up in the region and soon turned to photography as a way of documenting and sharing the area’s biological wealth and GESG’s work to protect it.  It was during one of his GESG expeditions in 1996 that Roberto found loggers at work in the cloud forest where the new species of magnolia grow.   After he raised the alarm, 40 friends clubbed together to buy the land and halt the operation – so saving a habitat where ancient oaks and cypress reach heights of 130 feet (40 metres), their limbs draped in dense mats of moss, ferns, orchids and bromeliads; and a place where he has photographed many rare or previously unrecorded life-forms, including jaguars, pumas and margays and a new family of molluscs.

Roberto says: “These discoveries highlight the importance of protecting sites with high biological value, giving ecosystems and species refuges from human activity, spaces where they are protected from humans’ ever-increasing demands for land and ecosystem services. If steps had not been taken to protect them, these species and others may have disappeared before we even learned of their existence.”

More information

Roberto has been donating his images to Arkive since 2010. View all of his images here and view the new species profile for Magnolia rzedowskiana here.

Find out more about the work of  Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda here.

Mar 29
St Helena gumwood image

St Helena gumwood (Commidendrum robustum)

Species: St Helena gumwood (Commidendrum robustum)

Status: Endangered (EN)

Interesting Fact: In 1977, the St Helena gumwood was adopted as the national tree of St Helena, a UK Overseas Territory.

As its name suggests, the St Helena gumwood is endemic to the small volcanic island of St Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean. This highly branched tree has a crooked, knarled trunk, an umbrella-like canopy and thick, hairy, wrinkled leaves. During the winter and spring, the St Helena gumwood produces white flowers which droop from the ends of the branches. This hermaphroditic plant was once a regularly occurring species within subtropical and tropical forests on inland cliffs and mountain peaks, with large amounts of seed falling around the parent plant and germinating freely.

Since 1659 when the first settlers arrived on St Helena, the St Helena gumwood has been exploited for use as timber and firewood, and forests have been cleared to make way for pastureland. In addition, this species faced further pressure from introduced goats which grazed heavily on its seedlings. By the 1980s, the St Helena gumwood population had been drastically reduced, and this spurred conservationists to put a management plan into action.

This species is now protected by the Endangered Endemic and Indigenous Species Protection Ordinance 7 of 1996, and the instigation of the Millennium Gumwood Forest Project resulted in 4,300 St Helena gumwood trees being planted in previously degraded wasteland in 2000. Other replanting and weed clearance projects are underway, and a successful biological control programme has helped to combat the destructive jacaranda bug which was responsible for a decline in the St Helena gumwood population in the early 1990s.

 

Find out more about environmental management on St Helena.

See images of the St Helena gumwood on ARKive.

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Content and Outreach Officer

Dec 7
Photo of jellyfish tree flowers

Jellyfish tree (Medusagyne oppositifolia)

 

Species: Jellyfish tree (Medusagyne oppositifolia)

Status: Critically Endangered (CR)

Interesting Fact: The flowers of the jellyfish tree have numerous stamens, and it is thought that these may have given rise to the name of Medusagyne, after the ‘Medusa’ of Greek mythology who had a head of snakes.

 

More information:

The jellyfish tree was thought to be extinct until the 1970s, when a few trees were found, but the species still teeters on the brink of extinction. Jellyfish trees can reach up to 10 metres tall and have a dense, rounded crown of foliage. The shiny, leathery leaves have a slightly scalloped edge and turn bright red with age. The jellyfish tree is the only species in its family.

Found on the island of Mahé in the Seychelles archipelago, only approximately 50 jellyfish trees are known, surviving within 4 separate populations. Jellyfish tree seeds appear to be unable to germinate in the wild, and it is thought that trees of this species have been lost from more appropriate humid forest habitats as a result of competition and climate change. They have been successfully cultivated in botanic gardens in very humid conditions.

Three of the existing populations of jellyfish tree on the island of Mahé are protected within the Morne Seychellois National Park. Although seedlings have been grown in a number of botanic gardens, many problems remain for this species, and a conservation priority must be further research into its reproductive biology so that an effective action plan for its future can be devised.

 

Find out more about the jellyfish tree at the Eden Project and Saving Paradise.

See images of the jellyfish tree on ARKive.

Phoebe Shaw Stewart, ARKive Text Author

 

Nov 28

The observance of Thanksgiving Day is primarily associated with the United States, and is a tradition which is thought to date back to colonial times following the safe arrival of the first European settlers to the untamed shores of North America. Nowadays, families and friends congregate to give thanks for what they have, so to celebrate Thanksgiving in our own wild way, we’ve gathered together a few of nature’s special inhabitants that we think owe each other thanks: symbiotic species!

 

Exclusive residence

Common clownfish image

Common clownfish are able to live among the tentacles of stinging sea anemones

Simply speaking, symbiotic species are those that interact in some way, to the benefit of one or both of the critters in question. A classic example, and one that many Disney fans will be familiar with, is the relationship that exists between clownfish and sea anemones.

Sea anemones usually sting fish that come into contact with their tentacles, but clownfish have developed a clever, yet rather gross, method of disguise. By covering its skin in mucus, the clownfish can trick the anemone into thinking it is touching itself, and so does not get stung. In return for a safe place to live and food in the form of debris and parasites found amongst the anemone’s tentacles, the clownfish is thought to scare away fish that may prey upon the anemone, and even lure fish in for its tentacled home to eat – a classic win-win situation! The clownfish is also believed to provide the anemone with good water circulation through fanning its fins as it swims around.

Did you know?

There are different kinds of symbiotic relationships. Some benefit both species involved, and are known as ‘mutualistic’ symbioses, whereas ‘parasitic’ relationships are those in which one species profits at the expense of the other. In some cases, one species benefits but the other is affected neither positively nor negatively, and these are known as ‘commensalistic’ symbioses.

 

Nutritious nectar and pollen parcels

Small garden bumblebee image

Bees, such as this small garden bumblebee, play an important role in plant pollination

Bees feed on pollen and nectar sourced from a variety of flowering plants, with honey bees using the nectar to make their sticky, sugary treat. Although flowers appear to lose out by ‘donating’ nectar, they actually benefit from these flying visits. As a bee rummages around the flower head for food, some pollen gets stuck to its hairy body and legs, and this accidental cargo is then transferred to the next flower the insect visits, pollinating it and enabling the plant to reproduce.

Did you know?

The traditional origin of the modern Thanksgiving Day is commonly thought to be the festivities that occurred at the Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts in 1621, when the European settlers celebrated their safe voyage, peace and good harvest. However, there is some evidence to suggest that Spaniards in Florida were the first to truly celebrate Thanksgiving back in 1565.

 

Getting a little peckish…

Roan antelope image

Oxpeckers help remove parasites from large mammals such as this roan antelope

In the wilds of the African savanna, large mammals such as this roan antelope can quickly become covered in ticks and all sorts of other creepy crawlies, which doesn’t sound entirely pleasant! Luckily, help is at hand in the form of winged wonders known as oxpeckers. Oxpeckers are known to hitch a ride on the backs of a range of iconic species including hippos, buffalos, giraffe and various antelopes, gorging themselves on ticks, botfly larvae and other parasites – the mammals get cleaned, and the birds get fed, and so this has often been classified as a mutualistic relationship. However, more recent studies have shown that oxpeckers often pick at scabs and cuts to keep them open to get more food, subjecting the wounds to possible infection and potentially harming the host mammal, making this symbiotic relationship more of a parasitic one.

 

Helpful houseguests

Acropora formosa image

Reef-building corals rely on tiny blue-green algae to survive

Reef-building corals provide homes for single-celled blue-green algae known as zooxanthellae, and in return these microscopic plants provide energy-containing compounds for the coral through the process of photosynthesis. The coral uses these vital compounds to build its calcium carbonate skeleton. In a way, these tiny blue-green algae are like live-in coral chefs…and they even clean up after themselves by removing any waste products! Brilliant!

 

Nature’s six-legged gardeners

Leaf-cutter ant image

Leaf-cutter ants tend to their fungus garden by creating ‘mulch’ from leaf fragments

Leaf-cutter ants are known as nature’s gardeners, as they spend their time foraging for leaves and cutting them into suitably sized fragments before transporting them back to their huge underground nests where the leaves are used to cultivate a fungus garden. While the ant colony is entirely dependent upon this fungus supply for food and so greatly benefits from this situation, the fungus benefits by being cultivated by the ants but also loses out by being eaten, and so this relationship could be classified as a more commensalistic one.

Did you know?

Most of us think of the US in relation to Thanksgiving, but did you know that several other countries observe similar days, too? These include Canada, Puerto Rico and Liberia. Additionally, the city of Leiden in South Holland celebrates the traditional US Thanksgiving Day, making the Netherlands the only non English-speaking country to formally celebrate this particular occasion.

 

Food on the go…

Dugong image

Dugong

Loggerhead turtle image

Loggerhead turtle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leopard shark image

Leopard shark

Giant manta ray image

Giant manta ray

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scientists are somewhat divided over whether the relationship that exists between specialised fish known as remoras and a variety of larger ocean species is a mutualistic or commensalistic one. Also known as suckerfish, remoras have a specially adapted first dorsal fin which has been modified into a sucker-like organ. Remoras use this to attach themselves to other marine animals such as sharks, rays, sea turtles and dugongs, feeding on material dropped by the host species while also getting a free ride and protection from potential predators. This seems rather one-sided, but some scientists believe that the remoras may also feed upon certain parasites on the host’s body or gills, therefore providing a great cleaning service to their marine meal providers.

If these beholden bovids, indebted invertebrates and contented chondrichthyans haven’t quenched your thirst for wild Thanksgiving-related information, why not check out last year’s blog, which features a whole host of awesome animals that the first European settlers might have seen upon arriving in North America.

Happy Thanksgiving!

 

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Text Author

 

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