Sex, lies and pollination. Australia’s remarkable sexual swindlers.

Article reposted from original publication with The Territories.

Rather than luring its pollinator with the promise of food this flower uses an equally, if not more, powerful motivator: sex.

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In shades of dusky green and claret red, the bird orchid’s subdued palette hints at its alternative lifestyle. The usual strategy for flowers attempting to catch the compound eye of a passing insect is to advertise proudly. Petals are used as panels for saturated colour, assembled en masse into conspicuous aggregate displays exuding exotic scents. In this way, nectar-filled flowers loudly broadcast the promise of their reward to entice would be pollinators into servicing them.

 

A deviant among flowering plants, the bird orchid eschews these typical hallmarks of floral advertisement. Crouched modestly on the forest floors of eastern Australia, its stature belies its status as one of the supreme specialists amongst the world’s flowering plants. Like those other showy flowers, the bird orchid needs the service of a pollinator from time to time, however unlike most other flowers, it attracts its pollinator without the payment of any reward. The orchid flower in fact completely lacks nectar.

 

Rather than luring its pollinator with the promise of food this flower uses an equally, if not more, powerful motivator: sex. Undetectable to human senses, the orchid’s advertisement is a precise chemical mimicry of a female wasp’s sex pheromone. This is targeted marketing at its finest, as the use of a signature sex pheromone ensures that the orchid attracts only males of a specific species of wasp.

 

Skimming by on wide zig-zagging flights, the wasps are interminably attracted when the ruse takes hold. They alight onto the flower with fervor, probing and hunting for the mate that their senses scream must be there. Bucking back into the column of the flower (the reproductive parts of an orchid flower are fused in this special structure), they make contact with the anthers and a large packet of pollen is deposited on them. The wasp disengages eventually and leaves, but soon, elsewhere, he will catch on the breeze the smell of a mate, and if fooled again, fulfill his role as duped courier for an orchid’s reproductive ends.

 

Called “sexual deception”, this mode of pollination was noticed by Darwin and his contemporaries in an age in which Europe’s natural sciences were in full bloom. It was a naturalist in Blackburn, Victoria however, who was first to discover the phenomenon outside Europe. In 1927, Edith Coleman had turned her great capacity for observation of the natural world to a peculiar native orchid. Resembling more flesh than flower, Cryptostylis, known also as “tongue-orchids” had caught her attention for its magnetic allure to a specific kind of wasp. Through her observations, Coleman was able to discern that male wasps were being attracted to the flower in order to copulate with it. An experiment through a window showed scent to be the primary attractant, and Coleman even observed the ejaculate remaining after having been visited by clearly convinced wasps. She wrote up her notes in a series of papers for the Victorian Naturalist and Transactions of the Royal Society for Entomology, which made quite a splash with the best of botany at the time.

 

We now know this was the tip of the iceberg. Australia is not only home to tongue orchids, but hosts a diverse array of other sexually deceptive orchids including the spider orchids, elbow orchids, hammer orchids, dragon orchids, greenhoods, duck orchids, hare orchids, beard orchids, bird orchids, and the list goes on. Harbouring over 50% of the world’s known examples of sexually deceptive pollination, Australia is certainly the world’s hotspot for this unusual phenomenon. Remarkably, we have several hundred species that employ this unique brand of pollinator attraction, and what is more remarkable, the evidence points to at least six different independent evolutionary occurrences in the Australian orchid family tree. To our eyes, sexual deception seems like a freaky, unlikely strategy and its repeated independent incidence through Australia’s evolutionary history is therefore a startling paradox.

 

Although the reliance on a single species of pollinator for pollination seems precarious, studies have demonstrated that sexual deception comes with the advantage of promoting healthy breeding for our native orchids. In nectar-bearing plants, foraging insects will frequently move between flowers on the same plant and between neighbouring plants. Called “optimal foraging”, exhausting local nectar supplies in a patch before putting energy into finding a new buffet makes economic sense for a nectar-feeding insect. Sexual deception however, has been shown to drive pollinators far from the flower after being fooled, so that pollen escapes the local neighbourhood. As a plant, your neighbours are likely to be related to you, thus deception is a way of ensuring offspring quality by avoiding breeding with your relatives.

 

Another factor supporting the profusion of our sexually deceptive species is Australia’s immense diversity of insects to fool. Although there are examples of gnat and ant sexual deception systems, wasps are the most commonly targeted pollinator for our orchids. Incredibly, we are only now beginning to uncover the immense hidden diversity of Australian wasps. For example, a recent study in a small patch of bush near Margaret River uncovered 28 species of wasps, most of which were previously unknown to science. With each of these species most likely having their own private sex-pheromone cocktail, there is seemingly a kaleidoscope of chemical communication channels available for different orchids to exploit.

 

Despite our deepening understanding of the natural history of sexual deception, its repeated occurrence in Australia remains a true puzzle.

 

Try the Atlas of Living Australia’s region search to discover which orchids (Plant family: Orchidaceae) live near you. [Link: http://biocache.ala.org.au/explore/your-area%5D