Plant pollinator interactions in the South African flora

The slides from my recent departmental seminar at the ANU are below.

The first half of the talk concentrates on plant-pollinator interactions, floral guilds and floral evolution. The second half is a slideshow of vistas, creatures and plants I encountered in my work.

Roses reflect greatest above 620 nm, Violets reflect at 420 – 480 nm…

Roses are red,  Violets are blue,  Botany is sexy, But less so than you.

Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
Botany is sexy,
But less so than you.

Along with odour, flower colour is perhaps the most important cue plants use to advertise to pollinators. Change the colour of a flower and that change can have large consequences on which pollinating animals are likely to visit[1]. Bees, for example, are attracted to purple flowers with UV highlights. If that plant were to mutate to white, it could very well find itself being visited by nocturnal moths[2].

In studying plant-pollinator evolution and ecology, it is very important then that we have some objective quantification of the colour of a flower. Human eyes are famously fallible and many insects and birds can see outside the range of our colour vision (400 – 700 nm).

The instrument we use is a spectrometer[3]. It uses optic fibres to bounce an initially white-light beam off the surface you want to measure. The wavelengths of light that are reflected (as opposed to absorbed) determine the colour of the surface you are looking at. The spectrometer collects the reflected light, separates the wavelengths through diffraction and digitises the signal. The result is a graph such as the one above.

In the graph, the wavelength is given on the horizontal axis, while the proportion of reflectance is on the vertical. The rainbow bar above provides an approximation of how the human eye perceives a given wavelength of light. The rose therefore will reflect greatest at wavelengths above 620 nm, the red part of the spectrum. A violet most strongly reflects around 420 – 480 nm. A pure white surface would show high reflectance across the range of the visible light spectrum.

Dedicated to my sweetheart, who for the second year in a row has been alone on Valentine’s.

Kniphofia are red, Agapanthus are blue.

Fieldwork is fun, But I do miss you. 

My bruised human ego

IMG_1344-1

This is the best photo I got of a group of baboons who gave me quite an experience the other day.

On a sandy fynbos trail, I rounded a corner obscured by vegetation and came abruptly face to face with a troupe of seven of these creatures. The closest member was only 3 metres from me. All of them were stopped, standing or sitting,  looking at me as I did the same. My first reaction was one of awe, these creatures are impressively muscular and intimidating up close. One of them, a very large male, was wearing a radio collar. My second instinct was to take advantage of the photo opportunity, but my camera was in my backpack.

My only close experience with monkeys comes from Indonesian macaques, and extrapolating from the damage these ones wreak on tourists’ belongings I was not keen to get the baboons interested in anything I owned. I was also aware that some baboon troupes in the Cape have a reputation for raiding. Bins, bags, picnics, cars, houses are all fair game. They have overcome their fear of humans and are now a famous nuisance requiring full time management.

My bag therefore remained zipped and in place on my back. I raised my arms and hissed, to try and persuade them off the trail. One of the leaders began to advance on me, and the others stood up to follow suit.

Finally, I was forced to concede the path to the baboons. I back-stepped into the bush beside the track, allowing them a 2 metre thoroughfare which they calmly took in an orderly and nonchalant fashion. Only after passing me, when their backs were exposed, did they pick up speed into a quick trot for a dozen metres to put some distance between us.

 

Red Hill fynbos track

Kleinplaas Dam fynbos track

 

Die Selfish Gene, Die.

I was recently asked by a friend for my opinion on David Dobbs’ piece “Die Selfish Gene, Die.” The article spins a yarn on why Richard Dawkins’ “Selfish Gene” thesis is sunk and the battle for updating it with a new theory of “genetic accommodation”.

It has attracted much attention as a great piece of science writing popularising the battle for a paradigm shift in genetics and evolution. Unfortunately its inaccurate and a bit too puffed up on its own bravado. My brief statement is below, however Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers provide a more thorough commentary.

***

Dobbs’ article describes a battle of two straw men. 

The term “genetic accommodation” is a new one to me, but the description of it sounds like phenotypic plasticity together with pleiotropy and epigenetics in a fancy jacket, but maybe we needed a word for that. Nonetheless, contrasting it with the selfish gene hypothesis is a false dichotomy. The messy truth for many traits lies somewhere in between, where the convoluted cascade of genetic-epigenetic-genetic interactions involved in “expression” will face selection as soon as its resultant phenotype hits the environment. 

The complexity of gene expression via interactions between genes and epigenetics (non-DNA inheritance) is blowing a lot of our heads off right now. It’s chaotically complex in there. I think the article therefore makes a mistake in referring to “gene expression” as a singular process.

Work I saw presented by John Mattick from the Garvan Institute provides a good example. Gene expression in human neurons can be governed by the interaction of RNAs, binding to “non-coding” DNA and interacting in 3 dimensions with complex protein molecules. In other words, it starts with a gene, which makes an RNA. That RNA’s action depends on the interaction between its sequence and where it binds on the genome. The sequence of DNA to which it binds, governs how it binds; simple like a zip, or more complex and looped up. Along comes a protein molecule (encoded earlier, elsewhere, by another gene) and the molecular properties of that gargantuan tangle of amino acids determine how it interacts with that looped up bit of RNA stuck to the DNA. This binding provides but a step in some long chain of protein interactions in a biological pathway. 

This kind of combinatorial complexity of interactions provides huge plasticity of action for a single set of tools (the genome).

One could argue that the first step of environmental interaction of any gene is the “environment” of the genome and epigenome it inhabits. This could still be squared with the selfish gene thesis.

As you were, Australian researchers.

Waking up to look at this before a coffee and a shower was enough to put me into fight or flight mode this morning.

With hackles raised I read on and found a sciency corner of Australian Twitter users in a flap about Abbott’s 20% ARC cuts. #AbbottsRazor #ARCcuts etc etc

While the wording of these Tweets is strictly true, they are also completely misrepresenting the politics of these ARC funding estimates.

The numbers are below. The top row is the current budget handed down by Labour in 2013. The middle row is the Abbott Government amendment. The bottom row is the difference. Numbers represented in thousands (000’s).

2013-14

2014-15

2015-16

2016-17

TOTAL

May budget

$883,959

$879,983

$834,587

$788,710

$3,387,239

Amendment

$883,959

$853,110

$783,253

$716,205

$3,236,527

Difference

$0

$26,873

$51,334

$72,505

$150,712

YES. ARC funding will dive by 19% in the next 4 years. But this is a dive courtesy of the Labour Government’s May 2013 budget.

YES. Abbott is cutting funding further, but this amounts to 4% cut in total ARC spending over the next 4 years. The majority of the sliding investment trend came from the initial budget trajectory set out in May.

The time to make a flap about budget cuts was in May. And some of us had a good whinge then. The truth of this latest news is that it is a continuation of the prevailing “death by a thousand cuts” trend, as another shaving is whittled off our future investment in research and innovation.

But the big lesson here is to hold fire when it comes to social media. A forgiving person might acknowledge that this shows that scientists are only human, prone to the occasional passionate, emotional, reactionary outbursts. A harder judge might question whether researchers who don’t think critically and do a bit of their own “research”, deserve any ARC funding at all.

Thanks Alice Hutchings, for engaging your brain. And Tom Stayner for the title.

Postscript

Jeremy Shearman from the Genome Institute in Thailand has produced this graphic showing the effect of amendments on ARC funding over the last few years. The trend is one of providing more upfront dollars with increasingly steep sliding scales of less funding later.

ARC funding amendment history

Major party’s science and research policies: Update

Two weeks ago I presented a summary of policy positions for the major parties this Australian Federal Election. Since that time we have seen the release of Science and Technology Australia’s science policy questionnaire, the release of the Coalition’s costings and an official release from the ALP outlining their position on science and research policy.

Of note is Tony Abbott’s promise to redirect $104 million of Australian Research Council funds away from projects deemed wasteful and into medical and health research. This should not be a surprise if you have been reading between the lines in the Coalition’s promise to maintain health funding and nothing more. The ARC’s competitive research budget for next year is $884 million and these cuts would “reprioritise” $16 million in the first year of a Coalition Government. While this is not a great proportion of the ARC pie, the move is more worrying for the precedent it sets in letting politicians decide the national research agenda.

Science and Technology’s response to the Coalition’s policy is here.

Updated table below:

SciPolicies8

Grading the major party’s science and research policies this election

For supporters of science and research wanting to know what the major parties have on offer in this year’s election campaign, you need go no further than here.

SciencePolicyBreakdown

Slim pickings indeed, aside from The Greens recent science package proposal. The Greens policies are thoughtful and align well with the Australian Academy of Science’s election policy recommendations. Liberal and Labor’s policies are limited token reactions to the recent McKeon NHMRC review.

I hope I will get to update the table if/when the major contenders can come up with some sensible policy for the research sector.

In the mean time, please feel free to copy and distribute the table.

THE GRADES

The Greens: Solid

Labor: Chiffon

Liberal: Gossamer

For more information:

Australian Academy of Sciences election policy recommendations

Greens Science Policy

Liberal Party health and medical research funding

Labor’s McKeon Research Package

Sydney Morning Herald coverage of Green’s science policy package

A most engaging mantid

Recently, I was fortunate enough to spend eight days in Ndumo Game Reserve, where for several hours a day I remained perched above clusters of large flowers smelling rather like a long-drop toilet. Tagging along as help on a study of Stapelia gigantea promised to be a chance to see a new South African biome and the wonderful creatures that come along with it.

The carrion flower (Stapelia gigantea, bottom right) in rural Zululand aloe country.

Driving to and from the field site every day we would encounter giraffe, wildebeest, nyala, impala and warthogs going about their daily activities. At dusk we’d sit in a bird hide, count waterfowl and watch crocodiles cruise on by. Our nights were serenaded by the wailing bush baby, the guttural grunting of wildebeest, the booming-bass of hippos and occasionally the manic whinny of a hyena, while the porch light drew in a bewildering buffet of invertebrate curiosity.

Croc on dusk, silently sweeping past the bird hide.

But perhaps the most endearing animal found all trip was one of the most captivating mantids I have ever seen. She is a cryptically coloured Hymenopodidae, belonging to the same subfamily as the spectacular orchid mantis. Unlike other mantids I have encountered she is very easy to handle and shows no desire to flee the hand or captivity. She is a voracious feeder and any moth or fly introduced to her enclosure scarcely lasts 5 minutes before straying too close to her raptorial forelimbs. On her second night in our field accommodation she had already laid a small ootheca.

She also displays a charming and unusual shadow boxing routine complete with weaving, jabs and feints.

Edit: I have since learned that she belongs to genus Oxypilus, a group of mantids called “Boxer mantis”, for reasons made obvious in this video. (Thanks Mantidboy for the ID).

The above video was shot with a Canon 500D, Canon 100mm f/2.8 macro in an improvised stove-top studio. A piece of white paper provided the background, the camera was stabilized on a bag of rice. This left my hands free to experiment with the lighting, provided by a cheap head torch. 

Mount Gilboa’s meadows.

This has been my sometimes workplace for the last two weeks:

The slopes of Mt. Gilboa. Watsonia densiflora in the foreground.

The slopes of Mt. Gilboa. Watsonia densiflora in the foreground.

To catch pollinators in action you need fine weather. On those days when the skies are clear and there’s little more than a gentle breeze in the air, Mt Gilboa is an exciting place to be. Gleaming green Malachite sunbirds chase one another between aloes, eagles and vultures wheel overhead, a startled bush buck bounds down the slope and out of view.

On these days the flowering veld is humming with the noise and motion of uncountable beetles, bees, flies and wasps, flitting, buzzing, mating and feeding. Protea heads crawl with furry monkey beetles, massive grasshoppers zoom by on the wing and bees of varied colour, shape and size forage diligently.

The flowering veld

The flowering veld

I come here to collect long tongue flies. As you prowl among the Watsonia inflorescences you first hear the telltale loud buzz, then look for the hovering fly probing a flower with its long proboscis.

Philoliche aethiopica foraging on Watsonia densiflora

Philoliche aethiopica is a specialist forager on Watsonia densiflora. This fly’s thorax is completely covered in pollen.

Netting the flies is not too difficult—they are lazy fliers. Keeping them alive in my flight-cage back closer to sea level has proved to be the big challenge. With the season wrapping up for this site, I’m unfortunately looking at the possibility of coming away with little more than just jars of dead flies.

Watsonia lepida, common veld iris and long tongue fly host plant.

Watsonia lepida, common veld iris and long tongue fly host plant.

Despite the setback there are other research avenues to pursue as the Summer field season unfolds. The luxury of a long field season is one factor that makes this veld such a productive place to study pollination.

Test post: Captive fly video

Currently in South Africa, my time right now is largely being spent on catching flies, planning to catch more flies and working out how to keep them alive and happy in captivity. The poor little video below is a quick capture of what I wish all my captive flies would do—buzz around and visit flowers like they’re just hanging out back in the veld they came from.

More on the fly project to come in the near future.

 

I hope to use this space in future to update on research progress, life in South Africa and occasionally sound off on things of a biology, botany, entomology and overall scientific nature.

 

Thanks for looking.