Earlier this week I wrote about plants at the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland which would be pollinated by beetles, geckos and lemurs in their natural habitats. There were too many fun facts to fit into one post! Here are a few more plants which deserved a special mention…
Many of the orchids in the palm house were in bloom when my Dad and I visited at the end of February. Each one is perfectly evolved for pollinator-specific relationships. They have landing platforms for bees, pungent odours to attract flies, or they imitate insects like our own native bee orchid.
This is where the National Botanic Gardens boasts another pollination wonder from Madagascar – Angraecum sesquipedale. In 1862, Darwin theorised that this long-nectaried orchid could only be pollinated by a moth with an equally long proboscis, which would have co-evolved with the plant. In 1907, more than 20 years after Darwin passed away, that very moth (Xanthopan morganii praedicta) was found in Madagascar.
Finally, we were treated to some real pollination in action. We spotted a queen Bombus terrestris/lucorum fuelling up on the flowers of a Pieris sp.
Queen bees emerge early to begin searching for nest sites in places such as the lovely untidy, tussocky bases of hedgerows. Early flowering plants are essential to their survival, so let those dandelions and other “weeds” bloom! Don’t mow, let it grow!
My dad and I were late season visitors to the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland’s Hidden February Blossoms tour at the very end of last month. Despite our tardiness, the tour guide diligently sought out each and every plant species that was still in flower, and had something equally fascinating to say about every non-blooming thing in between.
As someone who gets a kick out of plant-animal interactions, all my favourite facts were about pollination. Did you know that Magnolia is such an ancient plant it predates the evolution of bees, and is pollinated by a wide range of beetle species instead? Pollination researcher Beatriz Moisset describes the relationship perfectly:
“Beetles are very clumsy at their task; sometimes they get carried away and eat parts of the flowers along with the pollen they find there. Their mouth parts are made for chewing…so they can’t be blamed for their sloppiness. The flowers, in turn, are adapted to this rough treatment…”
The excitement on my face following this revelation ensured that the subject matter of our tour veered towards pollination as much as towards the original theme of winter flowers!
Moving along into the curvilinear range, designed by Robert Turner and constructed in a mere quarter of a century, we were introduced to the rare Nesocodon mauritianus. Its blue, bell-shaped flowers drip with nectar as orange as cough-syrup. The pollination of this species remained a mystery until 2006 when researchers discovered that two other plants with coloured nectar on its island home of Mauritius were pollinated by Phelsuma day geckos. Hansen, Beer and Müller (2006) demonstrated that Phelsuma ornata geckos prefer coloured nectar to clear nectar (which most other flowers contain).
“In flowering plants, coloured nectar could additionally function as an honest signal that allows pollinators to assert the presence and judge the size of a reward prior to flower visitation, and to adjust their behaviour accordingly, leading to increased pollinator efficiency.”
In other words, coloured nectar allows the geckos to spot and choose their lunch and tells them where to pay. But not all geckos are such honest nectar customers. Here is a paper featuring stunning shots of a Phelsuma stealing nectar from mangrove flowers in Madagascar, bypassing the pollen entirely! Unlike Nesocodon mauritianus, the mangrove Sonneratia alba has white flowers which bloom at night so it can also attract the more helpful bats and moths.
I can’t mention day geckos without showing you a photo of Phelsuma antanosy, a species I was researching with SEED Madagascar. I have observed them licking clear nectar from small flowers. I wonder how useful they were being in terms of pollen transportation!
After paying homage to the rhododendrons, azalias, andromedas and witch hazel, all brightening up wintry grey Ireland with their dazzling colours, we entered the palm house. And there stood the plant which takes me back to Madagascar most nostalgically of all. The Traveller’s Palm.
Cue the compulsory discussion about the origin of its common name: Stab it and out flows water to quench your thirst on a long journey. It might be stagnant and full of bugs, but as a last resort it could probably save you from death by dehydration. You can also use its leaves as an umbrella or a parasol, or for covering food on the long journey from the mountains to the market. The leaves grow east to west so you can use them like a compass. Or is it north to south? Or do they actually at all? Because I’ve seen them do both, so maybe I’ve misunderstood something, but I would not like to count on it if I was lost in the bush. This is where the facts always start to become a bit alternative. Can anyone shed light on this mystery?
Our guide then revealed the pollinators of the Traveller’s Palm: lemurs! The plant co-evolved with ruffed lemurs, whose fluffy faces make the perfect pollen brush! How I lived in Madagascar for 16 months without learning this is a mystery. Too busy with my nose in the undergrowth looking for insects and frogs, perhaps!
When my Dad visited Madagascar, Juveni, one of my ecotourism students, gave us a guided tour of the village where he grew up. I had lived just up the road from Manafiafy for nearly a year, but this tour opened my eyes to a rich history of missionaries and taboos, and some tasty secrets.
I must confess, the tasty secrets are what I remember best. A stroll through some short, coastal vegetation sent a couple of bizarre, colourful creatures whirring into the air. These creatures, Malagasy lantern bugs (most likely Zanna madagascariensis), are Juveni’s favourite snacks. They’re supposed to taste a bit like shrimp!
“American naturalist John C. Bannor recalled in 1885 stories of an insect called lantern fly whose bite could instantly kill people, animals and even trees. People at least were saved – according to the myth – if they had sex within 24 hours.” – The Myth Behind the Lantern Bug
Zanna species, or sakandry, eat lima bean plants and their relatives. I’m no botanist, but I wonder if a lima bean growing project in Sainte Luce could provide two sources of protein for local kids (beans and bugs) and help to replenish the poor soil in the area with nitrogen.
I never had the chance to snack on lantern bugs myself, but I think I would prefer the softer-looking nymphs, with their little fluffy bums.
Finally a post about insects! Ants are amazing. So amazing, in fact, that we managed to teach two whole environmental education classes to our conservation club with the title “Ants Are Amazing!” (“Mahalatsa Ny Vitsiky!” or “Mahagaga Ny Vitsiky!”, in Malagasy).
Let me tell you some mere snippets of information about why ants are so amazing.
There are over 600 described species of ants in Madagascar, and likely to be well over 1000 in total. There is a single colony of Argentine ants that stretches over 6000 km across Europe. Ants farm aphids, “milking” them for honeydew, and they collect leaves on which to grow tasty mildew. If a group of army ants loses the pheromone trail of the main foraging party, they will form a continuous circle called an ant mill, and run round in circles until they die of exhaustion.
The first time I lived in Madagascar, a fellow volunteer was collecting dead things to bring home to his artist friend. We needed to dry out a large bug. So we built an anti-ant tower out of Eau Vive bottles, with a platform of salt upon which to place the bug body, and a moat of water round the bottom. Overnight, the ants built a bridge by floating grains of sand across the water. They reached the bug and devoured it.
I only seem to have photos of Ants Being Awful. And, as anyone who has read 100 Years of Solitude or has been held under siege in a forest glade by biting ants will know, they can behave pretty atrociously. But you have to admire their team work and tenacity…
After learning the Malagasy word for amazing, I proudly announced to the camp chef that the dinner she had prepared for us was mahalatsa, thinking she would be pleased. She looked very taken aback, and turned to the guides for some sort of explanation. It turns out that mahalatsa means amazing in the startling, surprising, bewildering kind of way. Perhaps rather appropriately when it comes to ants.
I’ve had the astonishing honour of living 19 months of my life in Madagascar, most of them in Sainte Luce, as a neighbour of the gentleman in this photo. Literally thousands of photographs came home with me to Ireland and there are not enough words in the English language to describe what each memory means to me or what it was like. This is the first in a series of attempts to show my Madagascar to you, grain of sand by grain of sand.
Here is sweet, shy Solo, whose name means “replacement”. Solo helped out in the conservation camp kitchen and always found me the juiciest coconuts. One evening I was sitting in our wooden research station, entering data into the SEED Madagascar Conservation Programme work computer, as the resident gecko licked my lychee peels. I spotted Solo hefting this precious newborn zebu calf down the road in his arms. Its mother had given birth while out grazing, and he was carrying it home to the village. A band of small boys followed him, triumphantly bearing the calf’s umbilical cord and placenta high in their hands. Waste not, want not!