Thursday, 5 March 2015

The Plant Kingdom

The plant kingdom, Plantae, is comprised of all land plants and developed between 488.3 million years ago and 443.7 million years ago. It is between these dates that the fossil record contains the miniscule remnants of the first organisms to colonize land (Speer, 1997). In the enormous span of time between then and now, one can imagine the evolutionary experimentation that has taken place. With more than 300,000 known species in the plant kingdom, there is immense competition for nutrients, water, reproductive success, and space (Dickison, 2015). Many species have developed very complex and unique adaptations for dealing with competition. Some of the most interesting are plants that use deception and mimicry to acquire nutrients, attract pollinators, and defend against herbivory.
Before delving into these amazing plants and their unique adaptations, we must distinguish between deception and mimicry as these terms imply different qualities. Deception is often used in the plant kingdom to trick other organisms into providing a service beneficial for the plant (Dafni, 1984). C. K. Sprengel, founder of modern floral biology, recorded in the late 1700s the many deceptive tactics of the genus Orchis, which contains approximately 125 species of orchids. He studied these flowers and found that by appearing similar to a nectar-producing flower or other organism, these plants could attract pollinators and spread pollen without spending energy and resources on actually producing nectar (Dafni, 1984).

Ophrys eleonorae and Ophrys lupercalis, a wild hybrid orchid, whose pollinator, a male solitary bee, is engaged here in pseudocopulation (Pollan, 2011). Photograph: Christian Ziegler/Minden Pictures

          Mimicry is somewhat more complex and can be one of two types. Müllerian mimicry has been defined as when multiple species develop similar traits providing both with an advantage (Barrett, 1987). An example of Müllerian mimicry can be seen between Lantana and Asclepias. Batesian mimicry has been defined as mimicry of one organism or object by another allowing a one-sided advantage to that organism. An example of Batesian mimicry can be found in the genus Lithops (Barrett, 1987).

Mullerian mimicry between Lantana (left) and Asclepias (right). Photographs:Mercewiki (left) and B.T. Wursten (right)

Lithops plants resembling rocks: and example of Batesian mimicry. Photograph: Dysmorodrepanis

            Both deception and mimicry are used in many families and genera of plants around the world. Over the next 11 weeks, I will discuss different techniques of mimicry and deception, how they developed, and the evolutionary advantages these adaptations provide for the taxa they belong to. 

Barrett, S. C. H., 1987. Mimicry in Plants. Scientific American, September.255(9).
Dafni, A., 1984. Mimicry and Deception in Pollination. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, Volume 15, pp. 259-278.
Dickison, W. C., 2015. Plant, s.l.: Encyclopedia Britannica Online.
Pollan, M., 2011. The weird sex life of orchids. Available at: [Accessed 5 March 2015].
Speer, B. R., 1997. Introduction to the Plantae, Berkeley: University of California Museum of Paleontology.

1 comment:

  1. Mimicry and deception is a very fascinating subject. You mention Müllerian and Batesian mimicry and I am wondering whether there are any examples of aggressive mimicry in plants? I’m really looking forward to reading more about how plants deceive us (and other animals).