Pollination from the plant’s perspective

If plants had a perspective, they would probably think of pollinators as more than just extra-friendly house guests. That is, plants would be more likely to view pollinators as the mutual friend who likes to set up blind dates. Bees might limit pollen to its use as a protein source for the hive, and birds might devour the flesh of a fruit and eliminate the seed as waste. However, many flowering plants, as Bug Girl pointed out in a post in honor of National Pollinator Week, have evolved alongside these pollinators for only one purpose: reproduction. “Sure, you can toss your pollen out on the wind and hope it lands in the right place. And for a lot of plants, evergreens in particular, this works just fine,” she wrote. “That methodology results in a lot of wasted gametes (plant sperm) though, so for nearly all flowering plants, insects or other pollinators are needed for plant nookie.” Sometimes the pollinator-plant relationship is mutualistic, and in many cases, one species or another is dependent upon the other for its survival. Take the agave plant. Probably the most well-known species is the blue agave plant (Agave tequilana), the nectar of which is used as a granular sugar substitute and to make tequila (one of the “finer” products of pollination, along with chocolate and coffee, mentioned by Bug Girl ). Leptonycteris nivalis, known as the greater long-nosed bat or Mexican long-nosed bat, and the lesser long-nosed bat (Leptonycteris curasoae), are the primary pollinators of this economically and ecologically valuable plant. This agave-bat relationship is mutually beneficial. The bats, hovering in place like a hummingbird, use their long muzzles to feed on the high-fructose nectar of the agave. At the same time, the plants’ pollen collects on the bats’ fur. The bats then travel from plant to plant, spreading pollen as they drink from the nectar-filled stalks that bloom each night across the southwestern U.S. and Mexico. The bats also migrate based on the blooming time of these plants. They arrive in Texas—particularly in Big Bend National Park, where a single colony resides in the Chisos Mountains—shortly after agave plants, such as the century plant (Agave havardiana), begin to bloom. Unfortunately, the lesser long-nosed bat and the Mexican long-nosed bat are endangered—and as their numbers decline, agave plant reproduction becomes more limited. A little farther north, however, some species of agave plants—those that are not harvested for tequila— have evolved to attract both bats and moths to serve as pollinators. Agave plants have several ways of advertising their nectar: the scent, the color of the flower and the shape, or morphology, of the structure...

Read More

Extreme weather, campaigning honeybees and tracking whale sharks

This post contributed by Molly Taylor, ESA Science Writing Intern. Extreme weather: The rare multi-vortex that hit Joplin, Missouri on May 22 has claimed more than 100 lives and destroyed countless homes and buildings. Unfortunately, this is not the only natural disaster to devastate the U.S. this year. According to a recent Washington Post article, this storm season is turning out to be one of the most violent on record. The extreme weather, Brian Vastag and Ed O’Keefe reported in the article, is due at least in part to La Nina: “The jet stream’s river of cool air high in the atmosphere pulls warmer, more humid air from the ground upward, forming thunderstorm ‘supercells.’ Such a pattern drove the outbreak of more than 300 tornadoes that swept from Mississippi to Tennessee in late April, killing at least 365…” But according to the Post, researchers have also been exploring the potential role of climate change in recent weather patterns. Read more at “Storm season on deadly path; Obama to visit Joplin.” Campaigning honeybees: In the spring, beehives can reach capacity, basically overflowing with honey and bee larva. This overcrowding can cause the hive to literally burst in two, leaving half of the population in need of a new home. The old queen leads one half of the homeless pack to establish a new colony at a separate location, while a new queen takes charge of the existing hive. But where do the homeless bees go? Despite the royal title, the queen is not ruling a monarchy—worker bees actually vote for their favorite location. “The older, more experienced bees…fly off looking for options,” wrote NPR’s Robert Krulwich, and upon their return, they “announce their ‘finds’ by dancing.” That is the point when the “waggle dancing” begins (and yes, that is the official term), whereby the scouting bees use dancing to signal their sister bees. This encourages the sister bees to have a peek at the potential new home, and if they like what they see, they start doing the same dance. “This is how bees ‘vote,’” wrote Krulwich. “They dance themselves into a consensus.” Read more at “Nature’s Secret: Why Honey Bees Are Better Politicians Than Humans.” Tracking whale sharks: “With the help of algorithms designed to guide the Hubble telescope’s starscape surveys, conservation-minded coders have designed software that helps biologists identify whale sharks by their spots,” wrote Brandon Keim in a recent Wired Science article. “The program enlists the help of citizens with cameras, and lets researchers track Earth’s biggest fish across time and oceans.” In the past, researchers have found whale sharks to be too elusive to track as...

Read More

National Parks, dance lessons from a spider and bellybutton biodiversity

National Parks Week: In addition to Earth Day activities, this week is also National Parks Week. Allie Wilkinson of the blog Oh, For the Love of Science! paid tribute with a mini-travel guide on Acadia National Park in Maine; the post is complete with trail information and scenic views (see below video). “Maine may as well be my home away from home,” Wilkinson wrote. “I’ve gone up just about every year since I was a baby, at LEAST once a year (but usually end up going 3 times a year), and I always go to the same spots.  Each year, the big trip in August takes me to Mount Desert Island, home of Acadia National Park.” Read the full post at “National Park Week: Acadia National Park.” Busy billionaire: Richard Branson has moved from space to deep sea exploration, and, most recently, he has made the news for his plan to introduce endangered ring-tailed lemurs to Moskito Island in the Caribbean. Branson stated in The Guardian that the decision is intended to “…create a second island habitat [for lemurs in Madagascar,] and the conditions on Moskito are perfect.” However, many are concerned about the ecological consequences of releasing these omnivores. As explained in Smithsonian’s Surprising Science blog, “Conservation plans rarely begin with (or even include) the introduction of a non-native species. And though lemurs surely are adorable, they ‘could damage native flora and fauna on the island, particularly reptiles such as the stout iguana, turnip-tailed gecko, and dwarf gecko, as well as birds’ eggs,’ [conservationist Erik Patel] says.” Dance lessons: While we tend to think of dancing as a source of rhythmic self-expression, just like in other animal species, dancing can also be an effective way to attract a mate. Small, songless birds called manakins, for example, display an impressive moonwalk to attract a mate. And, as described in the blog immunoBLOGulin, “If you want to learn some sweet moves, take a lesson or two from the Australian Peacock Spider. While it’s less than 1cm in length, it can really put on a dancing show…” The jumping spider (Maratus volans) has a colorful flap used during the dance (see below video). Read more at “Lessons from the Peacock Spider: How to attract a mate.” Bright bills: “When it comes to mallard bills, brighter is better: A bright yellow bill is duck-speak for ‘I’m healthy,’ attracting more female ducks than dingy green ones,” Patrick Morgan reported for Discover’s Discoblog. That is, researchers found that male ducks with brighter bills had semen with greater antibacterial properties, reducing the female ducks’ risk of contracting bacteria-related sexually transmitted diseases. The researchers discoved that...

Read More

Ecology in videos and podcasts

Oysters proposed for cleaning up New York’s rivers, mall music has a bigger impact than boosting sales, cephalopods advance research in neuroscience and robotics, how gut bacteria might be shaping brain development and behavior and E.O. Wilson discusses a life of research on ants. Here are the remaining links from January. Oyster-tecture: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a study today showing heavy contamination in the Gowanus Canal in New York City. In the above TED video, landscape architect Kate Orff discusses plans to reestablish oysters to the Canal as a way to filter pollution and create habitats for other species. “One oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day,” said Orff, “…and they become the bedrock of any harbor ecosystem.” Read more at “Reviving New York’s rivers — with oysters!” Lowering music emissions: Stanford University journalism students put a new spin on the term noise pollution: They calculated just how much energy is used to play background music in malls in the U.S. As explained in the Scientific American podcast 60-Second Earth, “[the students] crunched the numbers on how much energy it takes to play all that pop and came up with a figure of 1.18 gigawatt-hours. Given the present energy mix that means Mantovani adds more than 3,000 metric tons of CO2 to the atmosphere each year.” Read more and listen at “Another Reason to Hate Shopping Sound Tracks.” Cephalopod brains: In a lengthy BoingBoing video, science journalist Maggie Koerth-Baker explains the cephalopod—such as octopuses and squid—brain and how it is used for communication, object detection and predator avoidance. “The secret to the octopus’ success: its brain,” she said in the video. “This incredibly weird structure, from our biased vertebrate mammalian perspective…is the result of an evolutionary process hundreds of millions of years removed from our own, creating an organ that looks on the surface nothing like what we’ve come to expect an honest brain to be.” Koerth-Baker applies these brain functionalities to neuroscience and robotics. Read more at “everybody loves cephalopods.” E.O. Wilson on ants and life: In an Encyclopedia of Life podcast, E.O. Wilson, now 81, discusses his lifelong study of ants—including the red imported fire ant that he discovered at the age of 13 in Alabama—and what drives him to continue his research. “I think my life proves, if you are truly a dedicated naturalist, if you’ve known the joys of exploring  biodiversity, and you’ve become fairly familiar with ecosystems that feel like home to you when you step into them…that it is a source of lifelong pleasure, adventure, challenge and excitement,” he said in the podcast.  Read more and listen...

Read More

Field Talk: Uniformity and diversity in the Homogecene era

Imagine a small town where everything is uniform—a tiny community of individuals who eat the same meals and pair up with people with similar qualities and traits. The scenery is stripped down: one church, one pub and cookie-cutter houses. Now add in social interactions. Greetings occur but they have few variations; life is routine. And just a few miles over in a town with the same layout, similar individuals are interacting, eating and greeting, in all the same ways.

Read More

Bumblebee advertises infertility to avoid harassment, keep order in the colony

Researchers have found that pheromones play a key role in reproduction and social status in the buff-tailed bumblebee colony. Specifically, sterile female workers seem to advertise their infertility with extra pheromones in an attempt to ward off harassment from competing bees.

Read More