Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Plant gives birds a place to stand

The Cape of Good Hope on the Southern tip of Africa is one of the world's great floristic zones: mega-centers of plant biodiversity where the weird and wonderful have made their home. One of these residents, a member of the Iris family called Rat's Tail, Babiana ringens, has an unusual structure that sticks out vertically, looking much like a rodent's nether appendage.

Botanists from the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa have lately suggested that this structure has evolved as a built-in perch for birds that pollinate the plant's flowers (BBC News, Univ. Stellenbosch). They observed that sunbirds were the only pollinators of these plants, and that the birds perched on the stalk while reaching down towards the flowers. Even more compellingly, in regions where the birds had access to other plant species for nectar, the perches were smaller, an instance of "relaxed selection", where a trait is less pronounced when natural selection is acting less strongly.

All this only serves to confirm my prejudice that animals are merely vehicles for plants to move around in.

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