Springtime Symbiosis: Trout Lilies and Superhero Ants

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Trout Lilies (Erythronium americanum) pop up from the forest floor, tiny harbingers of warm weather to come. This little lily is a spring ephemeral – a flowering plant that takes advantage of that tiny window of time between the last frozen days of winter and the heyday of spring, when the forest canopy selfishly soaks up all the sun’s rays. During those few weeks, the Trout Lily breaks through a ceiling of dead leaves, and slurps up sun and nutrients to store for the rest of the year in its underground bulb. If that’s not enough, that brief time is also used to flower, produce seeds, and make sure the next generation is safely on its way. No wonder this little plant needs a rest for the remainder of the year!

Given the time limitation, the Trout Lily can’t mess around with seed distribution. It has to be done right and done quickly. Call in the ants.

Many spring ephemerals, like the Trout Lily, produce an incentive for ants to take their seeds, move them a distance away, and plant them in a safe, nutrient-rich location. Each seed has a dollop of yumminess on its outer surface, like icing on a seed-shaped cupcake (officially the “icing” is called an elaiosome, a mixture of fats and protein). Ants carry the seeds back to their nests, feed the yumminess to their larvae, and dispose of the seeds in a waste area which just happens to be a wonderfully fertile location for young seedlings to begin their lives.

Not only do ants spread seeds to new locations and give them a fertile spot to grow, they also protect the seeds from predators like mice. Ruhren and Dudash (1) placed seeds in four scenarios on the forest floor: (a) accessible to both ants and mice, (b & c) accessible to either mice or ants, and (d) inaccessible to mice and ants. The researchers found that ants secured the seeds before the mice, saving the little plants’ lives. In locales where these superhero ants have vanished, spring ephemeral populations drop 70% (2).

Want to learn more about the superhero ants (a.k.a. winnow ants)? Visit School of Ants.

  1. Ruhren, S. and M. R. Dudash. 1996. Consequences of the Timing of seed release of Erythronium americanum (Liliaceae), a deciduous forest myrmecochore. American Journal of Botany 83(5):633-640.
  2. Rodriguez-Cabal, M., K.L. Stuble, B. Guenard, R.R. Dunn, N.J. Sanders. 2012. Disruption of ant-seed dispersal mutualisms by the invasive Asian needle and (Pachycondyla chinensis). Biol. Invasions 14:557-565.

Saving the Corpse Flower… and its friends

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Deep inside the corpse flower are its developing fruits (painted in the sketch above). After 6-9 months, they’ll look like a column full of beautiful ripe tomatoes, tempting birds to eat them and distribute the seeds inside.

Unfortunately, both the corpse flower (Amorphophalus titanium) and its major seed distributor, the rhinoceros hornbill, are threatened by deforestation. Populations of the rhinoceros hornbill bird (Buceros rhinoceros) have declined by 72%. Other species, such as the orangutan and Sumatran tiger, are also suffering from this habitat loss.

What’s driving the deforestation? Many old growth forests in Sumatra have been cut to make way for palm oil plantations. Are the Sumatrans really eating that much palm oil? Nope. It’s you and me. So check your food labels – sometimes palm oil is listed under “vegetable oil” (if so, it must describe which plants). Look up eateries and food brands by using the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Palm Oil Scorecard – thankfully, Ben & Jerry’s has a good score!

The Corpse Flower Opens – and Stinks!

corpseflower_fri

Many flowers use insects to transfer pollen from one plant to another. Some flowers attract bees or butterflies. The corpse flower, though, uses carrion beetles and flesh flies. What attracts these pollinators? The color of decaying flesh, putrid scents, and the warm temperature of a freshly dead body. Lovely.

While we humans tend to focus on color, beetles and flies who pollinate the corpse flower may be more attracted to the scent and temperature. Angioy et al. (2004) showed that certain insects have the abilities to “see” temperatures and are attracted to heat. The heat generated by the spadix of the flower is unusual in the plant kingdom. Not many plants expend tons of energy to warm up to around 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Those few that do are called “thermogenic plants.” It’s generally accepted that the heat increases the range of the odors (Barthlott et al. 2009), which is true of course. But wouldn’t all plants benefit by increasing scent ranges? Yet this mechanism is found in plants that only mimic carcasses to attract pollinators – plants like the skunk cabbage and voodoo lily.

While most flowers give their pollinators a reward of some kind (think nectar), the corpse flower seems to just take, take, take. The plant mimics carrion, where pollinators normally lay their eggs, yet gives the pollinators no food or reward. Or could it?

I personally found it interesting that the spathe of the corpse flower closed back up after it bloomed. It’s probably protecting the developing fruit. Yet the fruit takes 6-9 months to mature. At the Chicago Botanic Garden, the spathe of their corpse flower wilted after about 3 months, exposing yet unripe fruit. Could the flower serve as protection for the developing carrion beetles? Is there any food supply for those youngsters when they hatch? Or is it just a dead end (pun intended)?

FYI: while other arums smell like corpses too (my personal favorite is the “pig-butt arum”), some species of Amorphophallus smell like bananas or carrots.

  1. Angioy AM et al. 2004. Function of the heater: the dead horse arum revisited. Proceedings of the Royal Society Biological Sciences. 271(3) S13-15.
  2. Barthlott W et al. 2009. A torch in the rain forest: thermogenesis of the Titan arum (Amorphophallus titanium). Plant Biology 11. 499-505.

The Corpse Flower, a Botanical Marvel

corpseflower_lupin_thuIt’s rare to see a corpse flower bloom. If you ever have the opportunity, take it… especially if you get to visit Sumatra. Lucky for me, a corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanium) blossomed in the greenhouse next to my office last weekend at NC State University (https://cals.ncsu.edu/corpse-flower-at-nc-state/).

It took the corpse flower, dubbed Lupin, 13 years to save up enough energy to bloom.  It’ll probably be another five years before it does so again. So corpse flowers are rather special. Actually, fewer than 200 cultivars have been recorded since 1889. But now’s your opportunity. For some yet unknown reason, a bunch are flowering at once (1).

Lupin grew six feet tall in under two months! That tall, purple-grey phallic structure is called a spadix. At its base are about 700 vibrant orange and purple female flowers and thousands of male flowers (2). When the one giant petal (actually a bract known as a spathe) opens, the spadix releases a stench to attract carrion beetles and flies who pollinate all those female flowers.

So actually, the corpse flower isn’t a flower at all. It’s over a thousand flowers wrapped into one giant, stinky, gorgeous inflorescence.

corpseflowerfemales

  1. http://www.sciencealert.com/no-one-really-knows-why-but-america-s-corpse-flowers-are-all-blooming-at-once
  2. Gandawijaja, D, S. Idris, R. Nasution. 1983. Amorphophallus titanium Becc.: a Historical Review and Some Recent Observations. Ann. Bot. 51:269-278.

The Firefly and the Apes

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An old Philippine folktale pits a firefly against a troop of apes. One day, an ape asks the firefly why he carries a lantern. The firefly replies that he uses the light to see mosquitoes and defend himself. The ape laughs and calls the firefly a coward. Insulted, the insect challenges the ape (and all his friends) to a fight. The next day, the firefly faces 1000 apes with large clubs, all lined up against him. The firefly lands on the first ape’s nose and the second ape swings his club to squash the insect. But the lightning bug flits away and the ape’s blow kills his companion instead. Then the firefly alights on the second ape’s nose. A club is swung and the second ape is dead. On and on until the firefly reaches the last ape, who piteously surrenders. The folktale ends, “Since that time, the apes have been in mortal terror of the fireflies.” (1)

Despite folktales consistently portraying apes as fools, we all know they’re actually pretty smart. The Philippine tale is one account of why apes avoid fireflies. But could there be a biological reason for this aversion? Maybe it’s because fireflies are noxious.

One firefly can kill a bearded dragon (Pogona sp.), a fairly large lizard that can grow up to 2 feet long (2). For mammals like apes, well, they probably just taste really bad. Most animals that eat fireflies spit them out or throw them up.

Fireflies do try to warn their would-be attackers through their coloration. Light and dark stripes and red markings are examples of aposematic coloration – both are found on this lightning bug. Don’t say he didn’t warn you!

 

  1. Millington, WH and BL Maxfield. 1907. Visayan Folk-Tales. Journal of American Folklore. 20(79) 311-318.
  2. Knight, M et al. 1999. Firefly Toxicosis in Lizards. Journal of Chemical Ecology. 25(9)

Sometimes you DO choose your family (of geese)

gosling

What would happen if an adorable 3-day old gosling was placed between two wire enclosures, one containing a sibling, and one containing a same-age gosling from another clutch? Would the baby bird recognize its brother or sister and patter over to its relative?

The answer: yes… at least as often as dentists recommend sugarless gum*. In four out of five trials, the little puffball sidled up to its sibling rather than a stranger’s young’un.

There’s one catch. The youngest goslings (ages 3–9 days) prefer groups. Even if it’s a group of unfamiliar goslings, the little bird almost always waddled over to an unknown group rather than a single relative. By 15 days old though, the youngsters reliably reunite with their kin, no matter how small their family.

p.s. I created this image at an awesome carbon dust workshop, coordinated by GNSI-Carolinas, this weekend. Marlene Hill Donnelly from the Chicago Field Museum was our fearless instructor – she’s wonderful!

*Radesäter, T. 1976. Individual sibling recognition in juvenile Canada geese (Branta canadensis). Canadian Journal of Zoology, 54(7): 1069–1072

Snowbird Shape-shifters

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Those small slate-and-white sparrows hopping across the frozen ground are true snowbirds. They spend summer in Canada and move south to the U.S. during the winter. Some, like their human counterparts, even migrate to Florida.

In the late 1800s, R.W. Shufeldt wrote of two birds called “snowbirds.” One medium-sized bird, the Snow Bunting, became known as the “snowflake.” The smaller bird, the Dark-eyed Junco, was unequivocally called the “snowbird.” Shufeldt expressed his displeasure at the bird’s new moniker “junco” – he tried to determine, unsuccessfully, the etymology of the word (it means “reeds or rushes”) since the Dark-eyed Junco does not live among reeds or rushes.

Shufeldt’s article also referenced Alexander Wilson’s description of Junco folklore. New Englanders told Wilson that Dark-eyed Juncos change their plumage to become the Chipping Sparrows of summer. Before you laugh (or after you’re through), many birds significantly alter their plumage during the breeding season… although the Dark-eyed Junco does not. These two birds are both sparrows, trill similar songs, and feed on the ground.

While Dark-eyed Juncos do not morph into Chipping Sparrows, they have their own form of transmutation. Those round balls of bird aren’t fat, they’re fluffy. Feathers trap air, an excellent insulator. The birds puff up their feathers, a downy winter coat, keeping them toasty warm.

p.s. Red and the Peanut wrote a great post about the name “snowbird.” I recommend it!