Tricky little orchids

Orchids attract collectors all over the world. One of the things that draws us to these unusual plants is their Machiavellian approach to life. They unfeelingly employ deception to their benefit, usually practicing their art on unsuspecting members of the insect community. Research has revealed that one species of orchid, Anacamptis morio (or Orchis morio), or the green-winged orchid, lays its bold insect trap in an attempt to avoid a trap itself.

Inbreeding avoidance: not just for royalty

Although plants can do many things that most members of the animal kingdom cannot—self-fertilize or increase chromosome numbers in a generation—they’re still better off when reproductive measures result in an increase in genetic variation. As with most organisms, inbreeding is not a healthy thing for a plant, and many plants have mechanisms to avoid it.

The idea of inbreeding avoidance led researchers to a theory to explain the remarkable behavior of many orchids. These beautiful, much-coveted flowers attract humans and insects with their alluring fragrances and colors. For insects, some orchids add to the attraction by mimicking the female of the insect species, or wafting the scent of eau d’ dung for insects that prefer laying their eggs in such places. But of the 30,000 known orchid species, about 10,000 have nothing to offer the hapless insect in return: their flowers have no nectar.

Why keep coming back for nothing?

Researchers have sought to explain why insects would continue to visit such a stingy plant, and why the plants continue to get away with and employ their nectar-free strategy. The strategy itself seems in violation of so much of our understanding of the natural world, a place typically characterized by tradeoffs. In fact, orchids without nectar are not wildly popular among insects—it is difficult in many cases to witness a bee pollinating a green-winged orchid in the wild—but they still do manage to get pollinated.

Scientists investigated wild-growing green-winged orchids on a Swedish island and figured out why this species cheats insects so mercilessly. It’s about genetic variation. The flowers attract the bugs, but offer the foraging insects nothing, driving them on to explore other plants. Although the orchids have not provided food, they have given the unsuspecting insect a payload of a different kind: pollen. The bug—still on a quest for nectar—forages in other plants, pollinating as it goes along. Voila! No self-pollination. Plants that result from self-pollination are usually weak and unhealthy, and self-pollinating can be a waste of precious pollen.

Interviewing bees

Scientists detected this self-pollination avoidance by interviewing bees. They queried specific bees with plants that had been artificially dosed with nectar or with plants in their natural nectar-free state. The researchers found that bees stayed around the nectar-ful plants twice as long and investigated twice as many flowers on the same plant, which would promote self-pollination. Bees that found no nectar moved along to other plants, promoting cross-pollination.

One thing that could confound the interpretation of these results is that bees can remember how a plant smells. If a bee strikes out with one orchid, it will remember that orchid’s smell and not waste its time foraging around in other flowers that smell the same.

In separate research performed by a team in Switzerland, scientists found that the flowers of a nectar-producing orchid species all smell very much the same. But flowers on different plants of the green-winged orchid all smell different. A bee might have failure at one green-winged orchid and remember the smell, but then fly straight into another green-winged orchid plant because its smell is different. The unhappy bee falls into the orchid’s trap and gets nothing, but the deceitful orchid itself has had a great success: avoiding the trap of self-pollination.

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Batty bigamy and worse

Normally, inbreeding isn’t such a good thing

The idea that three generations of related females might share the same mate is, frankly, abhorrent and strange to us humans, but among bats, this tactic may be a fairly common phenomenon.

Generally, animals avoid inbreeding with one another because doing so results in the development of “inbreeding depression” in a population. This depression refers to falling rates of reproduction and survival that result when relatives interbreed. An example of what happens with inbreeding can be found among the royal houses of Europe in previous centuries. The members of these families would often receive papal dispensations to ignore the rules about consanguinity—close relatedness—to be allowed to marry another royal personage. There just weren’t that many eligible royal folk wandering around Europe and inbreeding was the ultimate result.

Hidden disorders emerge

Because of this inbreeding, often with third or second cousins marrying through several generations, the royal families would manifest disorders that normally would remain hidden. Some of these disorders required the inheritance of two alleles, both carrying mutations, for them to manifest. If the royal families had not constantly been intermarrying, the two recessive alleles would have been much less likely to come together in a single person. As it was, many royal households had children who were sickly, who could not reproduce successfully, or who manifested mental illness or retardation. One particularly notable trait that arose through several families was the “Hapsburg jaw,” a severe underbite and jutting jawbone that traced its way through the European royal chessboard. One potentate had a jaw deformity so severe that he could not chew his food.

Horseshoe bats don’t care

But the greater horseshoe bat appears to be untroubled by such issues of consanguinity, at least in the sense that related females from several generations will mate with the same male. In the world of the horseshoe bat, it pays to be a male bat who attracts a female. If the male attracts the daughter, he has a good chance of also mating with the mother and the grandmother, too. And he may be set for his relatively long bat-life; greater horseshoe bats can live up to 30 years, and females will consistently select the same male for the annual bat mating ritual, which results in a single offspring per female each year.

In spite of this inbreeding and polygyny, in which several females mate with the same male, the females apparently are quite adept at avoiding mating with their own fathers. A female will only mate with her mother’s partner if her mother has switched partners and is no longer mating with the daughter’s father.

Beat that, Belgium

This complex mating web results in a bat family tree that is more confusing than that of all the royal houses of Europe combined. It is possible for a female bat and her maternal half-aunt to be half-sisters on their father’s side.

How did researchers unravel this remarkable complexity? They identified a colony of female bats—who spend most of the year living in single-sex groups—in an old mansion in Great Britain. DNA analysis showed that the several hundred females lived in about 20 groups of related females who shared mates. The females met up with the males, who lived in a permanent stag party condition in a nearby cave, only once a year. Researchers speculate that females use smell to avoid mating with their fathers.

What benefit this interbreeding?

Why risk interbreeding in the first place? Actually, many species exhibit tactics that lead to closer kinship among individuals. Researchers speculate that closer kinships result in better teamwork to protect the genetic investment. In the world of team-playing ants, for example, female siblings can be 75% related, rather than the 50% most sexually producing species share genetically with their siblings. Experts believe that this extra genetic relatedness enhances the teamwork atmosphere of an ant colony. In much the same way, the related groups of female bats work together to raise the young. Researchers believe that this horseshoe bat tactic may extend beyond the greater horseshoe to other bat species.

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