June 11, 2008

Plant sex and consequences

My garden is small, maybe just 3m x 4m, one half of the gated yard in front of the house. We moved in a year ago and it was just dirt and creeping vines, two tall trees [5 or 6m each]. I cleaned it up, churned rotting vegetation into the ground, and began to move in some new plants. The flowers mostly died but the other things flourished, a great variety of green things, tall and short, and there's snails, butterflies, geckos. I worked hard on it for 4 months or so and then just let it be, my job just to trim things that grow too far out of bounds, pull the more aggressive weeds. I let things happen and watch it like a slow sport. Plants rock - they use sunlight to turn dirt and water into the living matter that lies at the base of every food chain.

I'm a big fan. So this story in the NY Times caught my eye, Plants Shown to Show Preferences for Their Relatives.

... scientists have found evidence that the sea rocket is able to do something that no other plant has ever been shown to do. ... [It] can distinguish between plants that are related to it and those that are not. And not only does this plant recognize its kin, but it also gives them preferential treatment. [...]

The finding is a surprise, even a bit of a shock, in part because most animals have not even been shown to have the ability to recognize relatives, despite the huge advantages in doing so.

“I’m just amazed at what we’ve found,” said Susan A. Dudley, an evolutionary plant ecologist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, who carried out the study with a graduate student, Amanda L. File.

“Plants,” Dr. Dudley said, “have a secret social life.” [...]

The studies are part of an emerging picture of life among plants, one in which these organisms, long viewed as so much immobile, passive greenery, can be seen to sense all sorts of things about the plants around them and use that information to interact with them. [...]

Some plants, for example, have been shown to sense potentially competing neighboring plants by subtle changes in light. That is because plants absorb and reflect particular wavelengths of sunlight, creating signature shifts that other plants can detect.

Scientists also find plants exhibiting ways to gather information on other plants from chemicals released into the soil and air. A parasitic weed, dodder, has been found to be particularly keen at sensing such chemicals. [...]

The problem, for many scientists, is that as obvious as the behaviors sometimes are, they can seem just too complex and animal-like for a plant. “Maybe if we understood more mechanistically how it’s happening,” Dr. Karban added, “we’d feel more comfortable about accepting the results that we’re finding.” [...full article at the link above]

So that's cool, as I'm about other ways of being, and it also links slightly into this thing on Bee Porn that I came across a while ago. I saved the page in Google Reader and didn't read it, assuming that it was going to be about floral mimicry gulling bees into copulation, which it was, although the main point is the movie that it links to, which depicts a graphic scene of inter-kingdom love. And also this quote from an abstract, which suggests why the slightly exotic attracts us.

The theory of mimicry predicts that selection favors signal refinement in mimics to optimally match the signals released by their specific model species. We provide here chemical and behavioral evidence that a sexually deceptive orchid benefits from its mimetic imperfection to its co-occurring and specific bee model by triggering a stronger response in male bees, which react more intensively to the similar, but novel, scent stimulus provided by the orchid. [Details at the Bee Porn link]

Note: While it may seem dumb that bees are aroused by the obvious fakery of orchids and such, don't forget that some men have been driven to a state of pseudo-copulation by ink on paper arranged in such a way that the two-dimensional image, a few inches high, resembles the naked form of an adult female.

Related posts:
What's so wonderful about flowers

Being moss

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