When we think about the life of plants it is difficult to imagine without interaction with the animals, as they establish different symbiotic relationships day after day. These symbiotic relationships include all the herbivores, or in the contradictory way, all the carnivorous plants. But there are many other super important interactions between plants and animals, such as the relationships that allow them to help each other and to live together. So, this time I want to present mutualism between plants and animals.
And, what is mutualism? it is the relationship established between two organisms in which both benefit from living together, i.e., the two get a reward when they live with the other. This relationship increase their biological effectiveness (fitness), so there is a tendency to live always together.
According to this definition, both pollination and seed dispersal by animals are cases of mutualism. Let’s see.
POLLINATION BY ANIMALS
Many plants are visited by animals seeking to feed on nectar, pollen or other sugars they produce in their flowers and, during this process, the animals carry pollen from one flower to others, allowing it reaches the stigma in a very effective way. Thus, the plant gets the benefit of fertilization with a lower cost of pollen production, which would be higher if it was dispersed through the air. And the animals, in exchange, obtain food. Therefore, a true relationship of mutualism is stablished between the two organisms.
“Video:The Beauty of Pollination” – Super Soul Sunday – Oprah Winfrey Network (www.youtube.com)
The extreme mutualism occurs when the species evolve depending on the other organism, i.e., when there is coevolution. We define the coevolution such as these evolutionary adaptations that allow two or more organisms to establish a deep relationship of symbiosis, due that the evolutionary adaptations of one specie influence the evolutionary adaptations of another organism. For example, this occurs between various orchids and their pollinators, as is the well- known case of Darwin’s orchid. But there are many other plants that also have co-evolved with their pollinators, as a fig tree or cassava.
In no way, this should be confused with the trickery produced by some plants to their pollinators, that is, when they do not obtain any direct benefit. For example, some orchids can attract their pollinators through odours (pheromones) and their curious forms that resemble female pollinator, stimulating them to visit their flowers. The pollinators will be impregnated with pollen, which will be transported to other flowers due to the same trickery.
SEED DISPERSAL BY ANIMALS
The origin of seed dispersal by animals probably had occurred thanks to a co-evolutionary process between animals and mechanisms of seed dispersal in which both plants and animals obtain a profit. The most probably is that this process began in the Carboniferous (~ 300MA), as it is believed that some plants like cycads developed a false fleshy fruits that could be consumed by primitive reptiles that would act as seed dispersers. This process could have intensified the diversification of flowering plants (angiosperms), small mammals and birds during the Cretaceous (65-12MA).
The mutualism can occur in two ways within the seed dispersal by animals.
The first case is carried out by animals that eat seeds or fruits. These seeds or some parts of the fruits (diaspores) are expelled without being damaged, by defecation or regurgitation, allowing the seed germination. In this case, diaspores are carriers of rewards or lures that result very attractive to animals. That is the reason why fruits are usually fleshy, sweet and often have bright colours or emit scents to attract them.
For example, the red-eyed wattle (Acacia cyclops) produces seeds with elaiosomes (a very nutritive substance usually made of lipids) that are bigger than the own seed. This suppose an elevated energy cost to the plant, because it doesn’t only have to produce seeds, as it has to generate the award too. But in return, the rose-breasted or galah cockatoo (Eolophus roseicapillus) transports their seeds in long distances. Because when the galah cockatoo eats elaiosomes, it also ingest seeds which will be transported by its flight until they are expelled elsewhere.
And the other type of seed dispersal by animals that establishes a mutualistic relationship occurs when the seeds or fruits are collected by the animal in times of abundance and then are buried as a food storage to be used when needed. As long as not all seed will be eaten, some will be able to germinate.
But this has not finished yet, since there are other curious and less well-known examples that have somehow made that both animals and plants can live together in a perfect “marriage.” Let’s see examples:
Azteca and Cecropia
Plants of the genus Cecropia live in tropical rain forests of Central and South America and they are very big fighters. The strategy that allow them to grow quickly and capture sunlight, avoiding competition with other plants, resides in the strong relationship they have with Azteca ants. Plants provide nests to the ants, since their stems are normally hollow and with separations, allowing ants to inhabit inside. Furthermore, these plants also produce Müllerian bodies, which are small but very nutritive substances rich in glycogen that ants can eat. In return, the ants protect Cecropia from vines and lianas, allowing them to success as a pioneer plants.
Ant Plants: Cecropia – Azteca Symbiosis (www.youtube.com)
Marcgravia and Bats
Few years ago, an interesting plant has been discovered in Cuba. This plant is pollinated by bats, and it has evolved giving rise to modified leaves that act as satellite dish for echolocation performed by these animals. That is, their shape allow bats to locate them quickly, so they can collect nectar more efficiently. And at the same time, bats also pollinate plants more efficiently, as these animals move very quickly each night to visit hundreds of flowers to feed.
In general, we see that the life of plants depends largely on the life of animals, since they are connected in one way or another. All the interactions we have presented are part of an even larger set that make life a more complex and peculiar one, in which one’s life cannot be explained without the other’s life. For this reason, we can say that life of some animals and some plants resembles a marriage.
- Notes from the Environmental Biology degree (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona) and the Master’s degree in Biodiversity (Universitat de Barcelona).
- Bascompte, J. & Jordano, P. (2013) Mutualistic Networks (Chapter 1. Biodiversity and Plant-Animal Coevolution). Princeton University Press, pp 224.
- Dansereau, P. (1957): Biogeography: an Ecological Perspective. The Ronald Press, New York., pp. 394.
- Fenner M. & Thompson K. (2005). The Ecology of seeds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. pp. 250.
- Font Quer, P. (1953): Diccionario de Botánica. Editorial Labor, Barcelona.
- Izco, J., Barreno, E., Brugués, M., Costa, M., Devesa, J. A., Fernández, F., Gallardo, T., Llimona, X., Parada, C., Talavera, S. & Valdés, B. (2004) Botánica ªEdición. McGraw-Hill, pp. 906.
- Murray D. R. (2012). Seed dispersal. Academy Press. 322 pp.
- Tiffney B. (2004). Vertebrate dispersal of seed plants through time. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics. 35:1-29.
- Willis, K.J. & McElwain, J.C. (2014) The Evolution of Plants (second edition). Oxford University Press, pp. 424.
- National Geographic (2011). Bats Drawn to Plant via “Echo Beacon”. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/07/110728-plants-bats-sonar-pollination-animals-environment/