Why climate change will dull autumn leaf displays



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Autumnal displays may be dimmed in the future.
Shutterstock

Matthew Brookhouse, Australian National University

Every autumn we are treated to one of nature’s finest seasonal annual transitions: leaf colour change and fall.

Most of the autumn leaf-shedding trees in Australia are not native, and some are declared weeds. Nevertheless, Australia has a spectacular display of trees, from the buttery tresses of Ginkgo biloba to the translucent oaks, elms and maples.

Autumn colour changes are celebrated worldwide and, when the time is right, autumn leaves reconnect us to nature, driving “leaf-peeping” tourist economies worldwide.

However, recent temperature trends and extremes have changed the growing conditions experienced by trees and are placing autumn displays, such as Canberra’s, at risk.

Autumn leaf colour changes and fall are affected by summer temperatures.
Shutterstock

This year, Canberra, like the rest of Australia, endured its hottest summer on record. In NSW and the ACT, the mean temperature in January was 6°C warmer than the long-term average. So far, autumn is following suit.

These extremes can interrupt the ideal synchronisation of seasonal changes in temperature and day length, subduing leaf colours.

In addition, hotter summer temperatures scorch leaves and, when combined with this and the previous years’ low autumn rainfall, cause trees to shed leaves prematurely, dulling their autumn leaf displays.




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The subtlety of change

We learnt in childhood autumn colour change follows the arrival of cooler temperatures. Later we learnt the specifics: seasonal changes in day length and temperature drive the depletion of green chlorophyll in leaves. Temperature can also affect the rate at which it fades.

In the absence of chlorophyll, yellows and oranges generated by antioxidants in the leaf (carotenoids) as well as red through to purples pigments (anthocyanins), synthesised from stored sugars, emerge. Temperature plays a role here too – intensifying colours as overnight temperatures fall.

We’ve also come to understand the role of a leaf’s environment. Anthocyanin production is affected by light intensity, which explains why sunny autumns produce such rich colours and why the canopies of our favourite trees blush red at their edges while glowing golden in their interior.

However, early signs show this year’s autumn tones will be muted. After the record-breaking heat of summer and prolonged heat of March, many trees are shrouded in scorched, faded canopies. The ground is littered with blackened leaves.

Of course, we’ve seen it before.

During the Millennium Drought, urban trees sporadically shed their leaves often without a hint of colour change. Fortunately, that was reversed at the drought’s end.

But we’re kidding ourselves if we believe this last summer was normal or recent temperature trends are just natural variability. If this is a sign of seasons future, we need to prepare to lose some of autumn’s beauty.




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Lost synchronicity

Long-term and experimental data show that the sensitivity of autumn colour change to warmer temperatures varies widely between species. While large-scale meta-analyses point to a delay in the arrival of autumn colours of one day per degree of warming, individual genera may be far more sensitve. Colour change in Fagus is delayed by 6-8 days per degree.

Warming temperatures, then, mean the cohesive leaf-colour changes we’re accustomed to will break down at landscape scales.

In addition, as warm weather extends the growing season and deep-rooted trees deplete soil moisture reservoirs, individual trees are driven by stress rather than seasonal temperature change and cut their losses. They shed leaves at the peripheries of their canopies.

The remainder wait – bronzed by summer, but still mostly green – for the right environmental cue.

For years, careful species selection and selective breeding enhanced autumn colour displays. This rich tapestry is now unravelling as hotter summers, longer autumns and drought affect each species differently.




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Paradoxes and indirect effects

It seems logical warmer temperatures would mean shorter and less severe frost seasons. Paradoxically, observations suggest otherwise – the arrival of frost is unchanged or, worse, occurring earlier.

When not preceded by gradually cooling overnight temperatures, frosts can induce sudden, unceremonious leaf loss. If warm autumn temperatures fail to initiate colour change, autumn displays can be short-circuited entirely.

At the centre of many urban-tree plantings, our long association with elms faces a threat. Loved for the contrast their clear yellow seasonal display creates against pale autumn skies, elm canopies have been ravaged by leaf beetles this year. Stress has made trees susceptible to leaf-eating insects, and our current season delivered an expanse of stressed, and now skeletal, trees.

Autumn leaf displays drive tourism.
Norm Hanson/flickr, CC BY-NC-SA



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Change everywhere?

This dulled image of autumn is far from universal. Climates differ between locations. So too will the climate changes we’ve engineered and their impact on autumn displays.

Increased concentration of anthocyanins associated with warmer summers has, for example, created spectacular leaf displays in Britain’s cooler climates.

Of course, we’ll continue to experience radiant autumn displays too.

In years of plentiful rain, our trees will retain their canopies and then, in the clear skies of autumn, dazzle us with seasonal celebrations. However, that too may be tempered by the increased risk of colour-sapping pathogens, such as poplar rust, favoured by warm, moist conditions. And there are also negative consequences for autumn colour associated with elevated carbon dioxide concentrations.

Of course, we need to keep it in perspective – the dulling of autumn’s luminescence is far from the worst climate change impacts. Nevetheless, in weakening our link with nature, the human psyche is suffering another self-inflicted cut as collective action on climate change stalls.The Conversation

Matthew Brookhouse, Senior lecturer, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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The 39 endangered species in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and other Australian cities



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Threatened species live in cities and towns around Australia, including the critically endangered western swamp tortoise.
Elia Purtle, AAP Image/Perth Zoo

Kylie Soanes, University of Melbourne and Pia Lentini

The phrase “urban jungle” gets thrown around a lot, but we don’t usually think of cities as places where rare or threatened species live.

Our research, published today in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, shows some of Australia’s most endangered plants and animals live entirely within cities and towns.

Stuck in the city with you

Australia is home to 39 urban-restricted threatened species, from giant gum trees, to ornate orchids, wonderful wattles, and even a tortoise. Many of these species are critically endangered, right on the brink of extinction. And cities are our last chance to preserve them within their natural range.


Credit: Elia Purtle

Urban environments offer a golden opportunity to preserve species under threat and engage people with nature. But that means we might need to think a little differently about how and where we do conservation, embrace the weird and wonderful spaces that these species call home, and involve urban communities in the process.

Roads to the left of them, houses to the right

When you picture city animals you might think of pigeons, sparrows or rats that like to hang out with humans, or the flying foxes and parrots that are attracted to our flowering gardens.

But that’s not the case here. The threatened species identified in our research didn’t choose the city life, the city life chose them. They’re living where they’ve always lived. As urban areas expand, it just so happens that we now live there too.

The first hurdle that springs to mind when it comes to keeping nature in cities is space: there’s not a lot of it, and it’s quickly disappearing. For example, the magnificent Caley’s Grevillea has lost more than 85% of its habitat in Sydney to urban growth, and many of its remaining haunts are earmarked for future development. Around half of the urban-restricted species on our list are in the same predicament.

It’s especially tough to protect land for conservation in urban environments, where development potential means high competition for valuable land. So when protected land is a luxury that few species can afford, we need to work out other ways to look after species in the city.

Caley’s grevillea has lost 85% of its habitat as Sydney has expanded.
Isaac Mammott

Not living where you’d expect

Precious endangered species aren’t all tucked away in national parks and conservation reserves. These little battlers are more often found hiding in plain sight, amid the urban hustle and bustle.

Our research found them living along railway lines and roadsides, sewerage treatment plants and cemeteries, schools, airports, and even a hospital garden. While these aren’t the typical places you’d expect to find threatened species, they’re fantastic opportunities for conservation.

The spiked rice flower is a great example. Its largest population is on a golf course in New South Wales, where local managers work to enhance its habitat between the greens, and raise awareness among residents and local golfers. These kinds of good partnerships between local landowners and conservation can find “win-win” situations that benefit people and nature.




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A series of unfortunate events

It’s no secret that living in the ‘burbs can be risky: a fact best illustrated in the cautionary tale of a roadside population of the endangered Angus’s onion orchid. Construction workers once unwittingly dumped ten tonnes of sand over the patch in the late 1980s, then quickly attempted to fix the problem using a bulldozer and a high-pressure hose. Later, a portaloo was plonked on top of it.

Examples like this show just how important it is for policy makers, land managers and the community to know that these species are there in the first place, and are aware that even scrappy-looking habitats can be important to their survival. Otherwise, species are just one stroke of bad luck away from extinction.

People power

It’s common to think if you want to conserve nature, you need to get as far away from people as you can. After all, we can be a dangerous lot (just ask Angus’s onion orchid). But we also have extraordinary potential to create positive change – and it’s much easier for us to do this if we only have to travel as far as our backyard or a local park.

Many urban-restricted species get support by their local communities. Examples from our research showed communities across Melbourne raising thousands of dollars in conservation crowdfunding, dedicating countless volunteer hours to caring for local habitats, and even setting up neighbourhood watches to combat vandals. This shows a huge opportunity for urban residents to be on the conservation frontline.

Our research focused on 39 species that are restricted to Australian cities and towns today. But that’s not where the opportunity for urban conservation ends.

There are about another 370 threatened species that share their range with urban areas across Australia, as well as countless “common” native species that call cities home. And as cities continue to expand, many other threatened species stand to become urban dwellers. It’s clear that if we only focus conservation efforts in areas far from humans, species like these will be lost forever.The Conversation

Kylie Soanes, Postdoctoral fellow, University of Melbourne and Pia Lentini, Research Fellow, The University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Are more Aussie trees dying of drought? Scientists need your help spotting dead trees



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As climate change threatens Australian trees, it’s important to identify which are at risk.
Nicolás Boullosa/flickr, CC BY-SA

Belinda Medlyn, Western Sydney University; Brendan Choat, Western Sydney University, and Martin De Kauwe, UNSW

Most citizen science initiatives ask people to record living things, like frogs, wombats, or feral animals. But dead things can also be hugely informative for science. We have just launched a new citizen science project, The Dead Tree Detective, which aims to record where and when trees have died in Australia.

The current drought across southeastern Australia has been so severe that native trees have begun to perish, and we need people to send in photographs tracking what has died. These records will be valuable for scientists trying to understand and predict how native forests and woodlands are vulnerable to climate extremes.




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Understanding where trees are most at risk is becoming urgent because it’s increasingly clear that climate change is already underway. On average, temperatures across Australia have risen more than 1℃ since 1910, and winter rainfall in southern Australia has declined. Further increases in temperature, and increasing time spent in drought, are forecast.

How our native plants cope with these changes will affect (among other things) biodiversity, water supplies, fire risk, and carbon storage. Unfortunately, how climate change is likely to affect Australian vegetation is a complex problem, and one we don’t yet have a good handle on.

Phil Spark of Woolomin, NSW submitted this photo to The Dead Tree Detective project online.
Author provided

Climate niche

All plants have a preferred average climate where they grow best (their “climatic niche”). Many Australian tree species have small climatic niches.

It’s been estimated an increase of 2℃ would see 40% of eucalypt species stranded in climate conditions to which they are not adapted.

But what happens if species move out of their climatic niche? It’s possible there will be a gradual migration across the landscape as plants move to keep up with the climate.




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It’s also possible that plants will generally grow better, if carbon dioxide rises and frosts become less common (although this is a complicated and disputed claim.

Farmers have reported anecdotal evidence of tree deaths on social media.
Author provided

However, a third possibility is that increasing climate extremes will lead to mass tree deaths, with severe consequences.

There are examples of all three possibilities in the scientific literature, but reports of widespread tree death are becoming increasingly commonplace.

Many scientists, including ourselves, are now trying to identify the circumstances under which we may see trees die from climate stress. Quantifying these thresholds is going to be key for working out where vegetation may be headed.

The water transport system

Australian plants must deal with the most variable rainfall in the world. Only trees adapted to prolonged drought can survive. However, drought severity is forecast to increase, and rising heat extremes will exacerbate drought stress past their tolerance.

To explain why droughts overwhelm trees, we need to look at the water transport system that keeps them alive. Essentially, trees draw water from the soil through their roots and up to their leaves. Plants do not have a pump (like our hearts) to move water – instead, water is pulled up under tension using energy from sunlight. Our research illustrates how this transport system breaks down during droughts.

Lyn Lacey submitted these photos of dead trees at Ashford, NSW to The Dead Tree Detective.
Author provided

In hot weather, more moisture evaporates from trees’ leaves, putting more pressure on their water transport system. This evaporation can actually be useful, because it keeps the trees’ leaves cool during heatwaves. However if there is not enough water available, leaf temperatures can become lethally high, scorching the tree canopy.

We’ve also identified how drought tolerance varies among native tree species. Species growing in low-rainfall areas are better equipped to handle drought, showing they are finely tuned to their climate niche and suggesting many species will be vulnerable if climate change increases drought severity.

Based on all of these data, we hope to be able to predict where and when trees will be vulnerable to death from drought and heat stress. The problem lies in testing our predictions – and that’s where citizen science comes in. Satellite remote sensing can help us track overall greenness of ecosystems, but it can’t detect individual tree death. Observation on the ground is needed.

These images show a failure of the water transport system in Eucalyptus saligna. Left: well-watered plant. Right: severely droughted plant. On the right, air bubbles blocking the transport system can be seen.
Brendan Choat, Author provided

However, there is no system in place to record tree death from drought in Australia. For example, during the Millennium Drought, the most severe and extended drought for a century in southern Australia, there are almost no records of native tree death (other than along the rivers, where over-extraction of water was also an issue). Were there no deaths? Or were they simply not recorded?

The current drought gripping the southeast has not been as long as the Millennium Drought, but it does appear to be more intense, with some places receiving almost no rain for two years. We’ve also had a summer of repeated heatwaves, which will have intensified the stress.




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We’re hearing anecdotal reports of tree death in the news and on twitter. We’re aiming to capture these anecdotal reports, and back them up with information including photographs, locations, numbers and species of trees affected, on the Dead Tree Detective.

We encourage anyone who sees dead trees around them to hop online and contribute. The Detective also allows people to record tree deaths from other causes – and trees that have come back to life again (sometimes dead isn’t dead). It can be depressing to see trees die – but recording their deaths for science helps to ensure they won’t have died in vain.The Conversation

Belinda Medlyn, Professor, Western Sydney University; Brendan Choat, Associate Professor, Western Sydney University, and Martin De Kauwe, Senior Research Fellow, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

An end to endings: how to stop more Australian species going extinct



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John Gerrard Keulemans. Published by Muséum national d’histoire naturelle (France)

John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University; Sarah Legge, Australian National University, and Stephen Garnett, Charles Darwin University

This is part of a major series called Advancing Australia, in which leading academics examine the key issues facing Australia in the lead-up to the 2019 federal election and beyond. Read the other pieces in the series here.


We need nature. It gives us inspiration, health, resources, life. But we are losing it. Extinction is the most acute and irreversible manifestation of this loss.

Australian species have suffered at a disproportionate rate. Far more mammal species have become extinct in Australia than in any other country over the past 200 years.

The thylacine is the most recognised and mourned of our lost species, but the lesser bilby has gone, so too the pig-footed bandicoot, the Toolache wallaby, the white-footed rabbit-rat, along with many other mammals that lived only in Australia. The paradise parrot has joined them, the robust white-eye, the King Island emu, the Christmas Island forest skink, the southern gastric-brooding frog, the Phillip Island glory pea, and at least another 100 species that were part of the fabric of this land, part of what made Australia distinctive.

And that’s just the tally for known extinctions. Many more have been lost without ever being named. Still others hover in the graveyard – we’re not sure whether they linger or are gone.




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The losses continue: three Australian vertebrate species became extinct in the past decade. Most of the factors that caused the losses remain unchecked, and new threats are appearing, intensifying, expanding. Many species persist only in slivers of their former range and in a fraction of their previous abundance, and the long-established momentum of their decline will soon take them over the brink.

The toolache wallaby is just one of Australia’s many extinct species.
John Gould, F.R.S., Mammals of Australia, Vol. II Plate 19, London, 1863

Unnecessarily extinct

These losses need not have happened. Almost all were predictable and preventable. They represent failures in our duty of care, legislation, policy and management. They give witness to, and warn us about, the malaise of our land and waters.

How do we staunch the wound and maintain Australia’s wildlife? It’s a problem with many facets and no single solution. Here we provide ten recommendations, based on an underlying recognition that more extinctions will be inevitable unless we treat nature as part of the essence of this country, rather than as a dispensable tangent, an economic externality.

  1. We should commit to preventing any more extinctions. As a society, we need to treat our nature with more respect – our plants and animals have lived in this place for hundreds of thousands, often millions, of years. They are integral to this country. We should not deny them their existence.

  2. We should craft an intergenerational social contract. We have been gifted an extraordinary nature. We have an obligation to pass to following generations a world as full of wonder, beauty and diversity as our generation has inherited.

  3. We should highlight our respect for, and obligation to, nature in our constitution, just as that fusty document could be refreshed and some of its deficiencies redressed through the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Those drafting the blueprint for the way our country is governed gave little or no heed to its nature. A constitution is more than a simple administrative rule book. Countries such as Ecuador, Palau and Bhutan have constitutions that commit to caring for their natural legacy and recognise that society and nature are interdependent.

  4. We should build a generation-scale funding commitment and long-term vision to escape the fickle, futile, three-year cycle of contested government funding. Environmental challenges in Australia are deeply ingrained and longstanding, and the conservation response and its resourcing need to be implemented on a scale of decades.

  5. As Paul Keating stated in his landmark Redfern speech, we should all see Australia through Aboriginal eyes – more deeply feel the way the country’s heart beats; become part of the land; fit into the landscape. This can happen through teaching curricula, through reverting to Indigenous names for landmarks, through reinvigorating Indigenous land management, and through pervasive cultural respect.

  6. We need to live within our environmental limits – constraining the use of water, soil and other natural resources to levels that are sustainable, restraining population growth and setting a positive example to the world in our efforts to minimise climate change.

  7. We need to celebrate and learn from our successes. There are now many examples of how good management and investments can help threatened species recover. We are capable of reversing our mismanagement.

  8. Funding to prevent extinctions is woefully inadequate, of course, and needs to be increased. The budgeting is opaque, but the Australian government spends about A$200 million a year on the conservation of threatened species, about 10% of what the US government outlays for its own threatened species. Understandably, our American counterparts are more successful. For context, Australians spend about A$4 billion a year caring for pet cats.

  9. Environmental law needs strengthening. Too much is discretionary and enforcement is patchy. We suggest tightening the accountability for environmental failures, including extinction. Should species die out, formal inquests should be mandatory to learn the necessary lessons and make systemic improvements.

  10. We need to enhance our environmental research, management and monitoring capability. Many threatened species remain poorly known and most are not adequately monitored. This makes it is hard to measure progress in response to management, or the speed of their collapse towards extinction.




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Extinction is not inevitable. It is a failure, potentially even a crime – a theft from the future that is entirely preventable. We can and should prevent extinctions, and safeguard and celebrate the diversity of Australian life.The Conversation

John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University; Sarah Legge, Professor, Australian National University, and Stephen Garnett, Professor of Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Native cherries are a bit mysterious, and possibly inside-out



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John Tann/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Gregg Müller, La Trobe University

People don’t like parasites. But there’s a local Aussie tree that’s only a little bit parasitic: the native cherry, or cherry ballart.

It’s what we call hemiparasitic. It can photosynthesise, but gains extra nutrients by attaching its roots to host plants.

The native cherry, Exocarpos cupressiformis, might be our most widespread root hemiparasite tree, but we’re not quite sure – root-parasitic shrubs and trees are a bit of a research blank spot. We are not even really sure who all the hosts of cherry ballart are.




Read more:
Warty hammer orchids are sexual deceivers


Although other parasites – like mistletoes – have a more direct Christmas association, cherry ballart does have an Australian Yuletide connection: their conifer-like appearance (the species name cupressiformis means “cypress-like”) was noted by homesick European settlers, who chopped them down for Christmas trees.



The Conversation

On the map

Cherry ballart grows from the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland to southern Tasmania, and across to the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia.

The first European to record it was Jacques-Julien Houtou de Labillardière, the botanist on d’Entrecasteaux’s expedition in search of La Perouse. He formally described the species in 1800, but we have no physical type specimen – the botanical type is his illustration and description. Maybe he lost his specimen, or disposed of it, or thought a picture would do; Jacques seems to have been a bit cavalier with his record-keeping.

Or perhaps it was stolen or misplaced after all his specimens were seized in an overlapping series of defections, wars, defeats and revolution as the expedition tried to return to Europe. The collection was eventually returned after the intercession of English botanist Joseph Banks – but no cherry ballart.

Jacques-Julien Houtou de Labillardière’s description of the native cherry.
Voyage in search of La Pérouse

Its distinctive shape led to native cherry being marked on early Australian orienteering maps, since they are in a cartographic Goldilocks zone: obvious, just numerous enough to make them useful, but not so many as to clutter the map.

That was until Australia held the World Orienteering Championships in the mid-1980s, when the standardisation of Australian orienteering maps for overseas competitors led to the cherry ballart becoming an early victim of internationalisation – at least cartographically speaking.

Its utility also extended to the timber. Among the uses of its “close-grained and handsome wood” are tool handles, gun stocks and map rollers (although the last is probably a niche market these days).

Indigenous Australians ate the fruit, used the wood for spear throwers and reportedly used the sap as a treatment for snakebite. They called it Tchimmi-dillen (Queensland), Palatt or Ballot (Lake Condah, Victoria) and Ballee (Yarra).




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Grow baby, grow!

Despite producing large quantities of fruit and seed, no one seems to be able to get native cherry to germinate reliably. There are anecdotal reports that feeding the seed to chooks works, but other growers dismiss this approach.

The edible fruit isn’t actually a true fruit: it’s a swollen stem. It’s reported to have the highest sugar level of any native fruit in the forests of southern Victoria and is much tastier than you’d think a stem would be. (It’s also probably an important nutrient supply for some birds, but that’s yet another thing we are yet to prove.)

This odd “fruit” gives rise to the genus name (exo = outside, carpos = fruit,) and was often touted by early European writers as another example of the topsy-turvy nature of Australia – “cherries” with the pit on the outside went along with “duck-billed playtpus”, animals with pouches, trees that shed bark rather than leaves, and Christmas in the middle of summer.

The sweet and delicious fruit of native cherries is actually a swollen stem.
Arthur Chapman/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Despite their oddness, native cherries in the bush are biodiversity hotspots. My camera trap data show they preferentially attract echidnas, possums, foxes, swamp wallabies, white-winged choughs and bronzewing pigeons.

This might be because they modify their immediate environment. My research shows they create moderate micro-climates in their foliage, reduce soil temperatures, increase soil water retention, concentrate nutrients in the soil beneath their canopies, and alter the understorey vegetation. They also kill some of their host trees, creating patches with higher concentrations of dead timber. All these probably have something to do with their animal attraction, but exactly how is a mystery yet to be solved.




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In addition to their attractiveness to vertebrates, native cherries are required hosts for some striking moths and share specialist host duties with mistletoe for some of our most beautiful butterflies (although mistletoes take most of the glory in the scientific literature).

My research into our cherry ballart hopes in part to correct these historical slights. I want to set the record straight on this overlooked widespread and attractive little tree, which has a long indigenous use and was one of the first of our native flora to be described by Europeans.


Sign up to Beating Around the Bush, a series that profiles native plants: part gardening column, part dispatches from country, entirely Australian.The Conversation

Gregg Müller, Lecturer in Natural History, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Warty hammer orchids are sexual deceivers



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The Conversation, CC BY-SA

Ryan Phillips, La Trobe University

Orchids are famed for their beautiful and alluring flowers – and the great lengths to which people will go to experience them in the wild. Among Australian orchids, evocative names such as The Butterfly Orchid, The Queen of Sheeba, and Cleopatra’s Needles conjure up images of rare and beautiful flowers.

Yet there is a rich diversity of our orchids. Some are diminutive, warty, and unpleasant-smelling, bearing little resemblance to a typical flower.




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While many orchid enthusiasts have a soft spot for these quirky members of the Australian flora, what has brought them international recognition is their flair for using some of the most bizarre reproductive strategies on Earth.



The Conversation/Ryan Phillips/Suzi Bond., CC BY

Sexual mimicry

From the very beginnings of pollination research in Australia there were signs that something unusual was going on in the Australian orchid flora.

In the 1920s Edith Coleman from Victoria made the sensational discovery that the Australian tongue and bonnet orchids (Cryptostylis) were pollinated by males of a particular species of ichneumonid wasp attempting to mate with the flower.

But this was just the beginning.

The King-in-his-carriage, Drakaea glyptodon, is the most common species of hammer orchid. Here the flower is pictured next to the female of its pollinating thynnine wasp, Zaspilothynnus trilobatus.
Rod Peakall, Author provided

We now know that while the insect species involved may vary, many of our orchid species use this strategy. Australia is the world centre for sexual deception in plants.

Perhaps the most sophisticated flower of all sexually deceptive plants is seen in the hammer orchids, a diminutive genus that only grows in southwestern Australia. Their solitary stem reaches a height of around 40cm, and each stem produces a single flower no more than 4cm in length.

Even among sexually deceptive orchids, hammer orchids stand out from the crowd. They have a single heart-shaped leaf that sits flush with the soil surface, and grow in areas of dry inhospitable sand – an unusual choice for an orchid.

The thynnine wasp Zaspilothynnus nigripes is a sexually deceived.
pollinator of the Warty hammer orchid. Here they are pictured in copula, with the
flightless female having been carried to a food source by the male.

Keith Smith, Author provided

And then there is the flower. Not only does the lip of the flower more closely resemble an insect than a petal, but it is hinged partway along. All of which starts to makes sense once you see the pollinators in action.

Like many other Australian sexually deceptive orchids, they are pollinated by thynnine wasps – a unique group in which the male picks up the flightless female and they mate in flight.

In the case of hammer orchids, the male grasps the insect-like lip and attempts to fly off with “her”. The combination of his momentum and the hinge mechanism swings him upside down and onto the orchid’s reproductive structures.

It’s not me, it’s you (you’re a flower)

So, how do you trick a wasp?

Accurate visual mimicry of the female insect does not appear to be essential, as there are some sexually deceptive orchids that are brightly coloured like a regular flower.

Instead, the key ingredient for attracting pollinators to the flower is mimicking the sex pheromone of the female insect. And boy, is this pheromone potent.

Indeed, one of the strangest fieldwork experiences I’ve had was wasps flying through my open car window while stopped at traffic lights, irresistibly drawn to make love to the hammer orchids sitting on the passenger seat!

Pollination of the Warty hammer orchid by a male of the thynnine wasp Zaspilothynnus nigripes.
Suzi Bond, Author provided

While determining the chemicals responsible for attraction of sexually deceived pollinators is a laborious process, we now know that multiple classes of chemicals are involved, several of which were new to science or had no previously known function in plants.

What’s more, we are still discovering new and unexpected cases of sexual deception in orchids that don’t conform to the insect-like appearance of many sexually deceptive orchids.

A classic example is the case of the Warty hammer orchid and the Kings spider orchid – these two species have totally different-looking flowers, yet both are pollinated by the same wasp species through sexual deception.

While the ability to attract sexually excited males without closely resembling a female insect may partly explain the evolution of sexual deception, it does not explain the benefit of evolving this strategy in the first place.

A leading hypothesis for the evolution of sexual deception is that mate-seeking males be more efficient at finding orchid flowers than food-foraging pollinators – but this remains a work in progress.

The life cycle of the Warty hammer orchid and its pollinator species,
highlighting the complex ecological requirements needed to support a population of.
the orchid.

Martin Thompson, Author provided

From a conservation point of view, pollination by sexual deception has some interesting challenges. Female animals produce sex pheromones that only attract males of their own species. This means an orchid that mimics a sex pheromone typically relies on a single pollinator species. As such, conservation of any given orchid species requires the presence of a viable population of a particular pollinator.

Further, an interesting quirk of these sexually deceptive systems is the potential for cryptic forms of the orchid: where populations of orchids that appear identical to human observers actually attract different pollinator species through shifts in pheromone chemistry. Indeed, of the ten known species of hammer orchid, three contain cryptic forms.




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Australia’s unusual species


Not only does this create a major challenge for managing rare species, it raises the possibility that – should these forms prove to be separate species – the true diversity of sexually deceptive orchids could be greatly underestimated.


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Ryan Phillips, Senior Lecturer in Ecology, Environment & Evolution, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.