Tag Archives: Nature

The largest West African flower: Pararistolochia goldieana!

Some years ago, browsing in a second hand bookshop, I happened across a copy of an old magazine from 1950 called Nigeria. Published by the then colonial government, it was a miscellaneous collection of articles about the culture, geography and natural history of that fascinating West African country. Although aspects of the contents are problematical by modern standards, I bought it because of a short article about a wild plant with enormous flowers and a remarkable pollination strategy. In particular, the spectacular photograph of a man holding a flower that’s the length of his forearm grabbed my attention: who couldn’t love a flower like that?!

The plant is Pararistolochia goldieana, a vine found in the forests of this region, as described in the introductory text:

These types of flowers are pollinated by flies, a common strategy in the Birthwort family (Aristolochiaceae) to which the plant belongs. This strategy of fly pollination in which flies are deceived into visiting the flowers by their stink and colour, and temporarily trapped in the enclosed chamber, is something that I explore in detail in my book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society, particularly in the genus Ceropegia. Those plants show convergent evolution with the pollination systems of Aristolochiaceae, though they are unrelated.

Pararistolochia goldieana has a wide distribution across West Africa, including Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. The IUCN Red List categorises it as ‘Vulnerable’ due to habitat loss. The population where these photographs were taken is described on the final page of the article:

The city of Ibadan is one of the largest in Nigeria and has grown enormously, ‘from 40 km2 in the 1950s to 250 km2 in the 1990s‘. I wonder if this forest, and its botanical treasures, still exists?

During field work in Gabon in the 1990s I was fortunate enough to encounter a species of Pararistolochia in the rainforest of Lopé National Park. It was a different species to P. goldieana, with rather smaller but no less spectacular flowers, and it stank to high heaven! We knew it was there long before we saw it. I collected some flies from the flowers and had them identified, though I’ve never published the data: it’s available if anyone is working on a review of pollination in the family.

This 1950 article is anonymous, so I don’t know who to acknowledge for the amazing images. However the botanist R.W.J. Keay was working on a revision of the family for the Flora of West Tropical Africa project at the time, so it may have been written by him.

A spectacular new plant has been named to honour a colleague: meet Ceropegia heidukiae!

Finding organisms that have not previously been described by scientists is not unusual; every year, hundreds of ‘new’ species enter the taxonomic literature, a testament to how little we still understand about the Earth’s biodiversity. The majority of these species are insects, because that’s the most diverse group of organisms on the planet. But new species of plants and fungi also turn up regularly: for example in 2020, botanists and mycologists at Kew named 156, including some from Britain.

So although discovering undescribed species is not uncommon, any field biologist will tell you that it’s an exciting moment to spot something that you’re never seen before and which could turn out to be new. That was certainly the case when my colleague Dr Annemarie Heiduk’s attention was drawn to a South African plant that was clearly something special. As Anne said to me this week:

‘I will never ever forget the very moment when I spotted it and immediately knew it was something no-one has ever seen before. And I was so lucky to find it in flower. I cannot describe how beautiful it looked sticking out of the surrounding grass vegetation. It is certainly one of a kind and I really know how lucky I was to have found it. Not once did it ever cross my mind that I will discover a novel Ceropegia species, let alone one that is so distinct!’

So it was that last year Anne discovered the plant that was to be named in her honour: Ceropegia heidukiae. The species has been described by David Styles and Ulrich Meve in the journal Phytotaxa (from where the image above was taken). There’s also an account of the species on the Pollination Research Lab blog, with further photographs and information about the plant.

Anne has been honoured in this way not just because she discovered the plant, but also because, to quote the paper, she:

‘is a pollination ecologist who with her research on the floral chemistry and deceptive pollination strategies of Ceropegia trap flowers has acquired recognition as an expert in this field’

Anne tells me that she has already collected pollinator and floral scent data for this new species, so we can look forward to seeing that published in the near future. I described the fascinating pollination ecology of Ceropegia, including some of Anne’s earlier work, in my recent book. This is a genus of plants that has intrigued me since I first saw photographs of them and started growing them as a teenager, 40 years ago. Since then I’ve published several papers about their pollination strategies, and how they compare with the family Apocynaceae as a whole: see the following links for some examples:

https://jeffollerton.co.uk/2017/09/03/fly-pollination-in-the-trap-flower-genus-ceropegia-a-new-study-just-published/

https://jeffollerton.co.uk/2018/08/21/the-evolution-of-pollination-systems-in-one-of-the-largest-plant-families-a-new-study-just-published-download-it-for-free/

So, a big congratulations to Anne, and to David and Ulrich – it’s an amazing plant! I wonder what else is still waiting to be discovered in the stunning grasslands of South Africa?

New article just published: ‘Pollinators and pollination: myths, misunderstandings and much more to discover’

My first (and hopefully not my last) article for the magazine British Wildlife has just appeared in the April issue. Entitled ‘Pollinators and pollination: myths, misunderstandings and much more to discover’ you can get a preview here: https://www.britishwildlife.com/article/volume-32-number-5-page-316-323

The article focuses on some of the myths and misunderstandings that I dealt with in my book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society. It also points out that, even in a place like Britain with a long tradition of natural history study, there’s still much for the patient observer to discover. If you’re interested in a PDF, drop me a line via the Contact page.

Pollinators are allies in the fight against climate change: a new commentary just published in New Scientist

Over the past few months I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between the “Climate Emergency” (CE) and the “Ecological Emergency” (EE), and how they overlap considerably in terms of causes and solutions, but that the priorities of the CE often trump those of the EE. One of the outcomes of this has been a commentary that’s been published in New Scientist this week. It’s free to access – here’s the link:

https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24933260-100-pollinators-are-our-secret-weapon-in-the-fight-against-global-warming/

It’s extracted from a much longer article that discusses the role of pollinators in relation to climate change. Hopefully that will be published in the not too distant future.

The other thing that’s happened this week is that, in my role as Visiting Professor of Biodiversity at the University of Northampton, I was asked to take part in a webinar that’s one of a series being produced in support of the Levelling Up Goals. The LUGs, modelled on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have cross-party support in Parliament and aim to bring economic prosperity to those parts of the country that have lagged behind in recent decades. The “Green Economy” is seen as central to this.

The webinar was recorded and you can view it here: https://www.fit-for-purpose.org/engage/how-to-level-up-harness-the-energy-transition

It was interesting and I learned quite a bit, for example about how the government is investing the state pension pot in sustainable energy projects. The format of the webinar, however, with the chair asking individuals a question and each of us responding, was a little frustrating as there was no real opportunity to counter statements being made, particularly by the MP for Hexham.

Yesterday Karin and I had out first COVID-19 vaccination; today we both feel a little under the weather, but it will pass. It’s certainly better than the alternative!

Nature can’t solve all of our issues – sometimes we need therapy! Check out this new book: The Essential Companion to Talking Therapy

Talking Therapy Blue copy.jpg

About 20 years ago I went through a very difficult relationship break up. At the time I had a young family and found the whole thing too overwhelming to deal with. No amount of talking with friends and family helped. The current fashionable advice – “getting out into nature” – also did not help. Interacting with nature by walking, gardening or getting involved in active conservation, is a wonderful panacea for some mental health conditions. But it cannot solve all of our problems, especially those that come out of the blue. So I turned to therapy and had a series of weekly sessions with a therapist who provided a safe, neutral space for me to explore my emotions, anxieties about the future, and concerns for my own mental health. It was an amazingly useful experience.

Fast forward two decades and, lo and behold, I am married to a therapist! Not the same therapist I hasten to add, it’s purely coincidental!! Having a relationship with one of your clients would be hugely unethical on the therapist’s part, and ethical behaviour is just one of the themes that is in my wife’s new book.

So this is the reason for today’s blog post: it’s publication day for The Essential Companion to Talking Therapy by Karin Blak.

It’s the first volume of its kind that explains what you can expect to experience before, during and after therapy takes places. The book also deals with the many questions that you may have, or didn’t know to ask, about the therapeutic journey. It’s an invaluable read for anyone considering or going through therapy or counselling for issues around mental health, relationships, family problems, and so forth. It’s also got a useful section for families and friends on how to support a loved one who is in therapy.

Most importantly it provides a clear and rational argument for why therapy works, something that I only discovered for myself by going through the process. I wish I’d had this book 20 years ago.

The Essential Companion to Talking Therapy is available from all online booksellers around the globe, as a paperback or e-book. There’s also an audiobook version in the works.

OK, I’m clearly biased, but it is great book: well done darling, I’m so proud of you!

How old are the flowering plants? A new study aims to reconcile the fossil and DNA evidence – but what does it mean for pollinators?

Yesterday I was contacted by a journalist to give a comment on a paper that’s just been published in Nature Ecology and Evolution:

Silvestro, D., Bacon, C.D., Ding, W. et al. (2021) Fossil data support a pre-Cretaceous origin of flowering plants. Nature Ecology and Evolution https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-020-01387-8

I was happy to do so as it adds a fascinating twist to a long-standing interest of mine: when did the angiosperms evolve and what role did pollinators play in that evolution?

In the end they didn’t use the text that I sent back to them, so I thought that I’d share it on the blog:

The evolution of the angiosperms was arguably one of the most significant events in the history of life on Earth, but the timing of the origin of this group of plants remains a hotly debated topic, with conflicting evidence coming from the fossil record and molecular biology. This important new study has developed a novel statistical approach to reconcile these two lines of evidence, and comes down firmly on the side of the molecular evidence to conclude that angiosperms originated much earlier than the fossil record suggests. This will be sure to stir up further debate that can only be resolved by finding well preserved and accurately interpreted fossils of an appropriate age. In the future I would like to see Silvestro et al.’s technique applied to the major groups of pollinators such as bees and wasps (Hymenoptera) and butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera) where there is likewise a discrepancy between what the fossils and DNA are telling us. Pollinators have had a profound influence on angiosperm evolution and we might expect a close correlation between the origin and subsequent diversification of these different groups of organisms. This would certainly support the findings from Silvestro et al.’s study. It’s an exciting time for researchers in this field: a world without flowers and pollinators would look very different

Flowers can be assholes – quite literally!

2003-572 s G Bochum

WARNING: There’s a high yuck factor to this post, it’s not for the squeamish or easily offended!

One of my Twitter contacts, Traci Birge in Finland, has been reading Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society, and making some very nice comments about it. I had to laugh at this one in which she describes some plants as “assholes” because of the way in which they deceive pollinators into visiting their flowers but offer no reward in return:

If you follow that thread you can see that Traci was closer to the truth than perhaps she realised: there are some plants with flowers that appear to mimic the anuses of dead mammals, particularly in the families Apocynaceae and Araceae. By their smell, texture, colour and hairiness they are fooling flies into visiting the flowers, because assholes, like any mammalian orifice, provide an entry point for maggots of carrion-feeding flies. Sometimes the deception is so great that the flies lay their eggs on these blooms, though of course the maggots starve.

A great example of an anus-mimicking bloom is the Dead Horse Arum (Helicodiceros muscivorus). Check out the image above: if that doesn’t look like a horse’s ass, I don’t know what does!

Other examples might be found within the stapeliads, especially the genus Huernia which often have a thickened annulus to the centre of the flower. However that could also be interpreted as mimicking an open, inflamed wound on the side of an animal:

As I point out in the book, you might imagine that there would be strong natural selection against flies visiting these flowers if they lose fitness by laying eggs on such an unsuitable substrate. But the flowers are tapping into really deep-seated behaviours and clearly the flies can’t distinguish the flowers from the real thing.

This is flower pollination that is far removed from the deliciously perfumed, cute-and-cuddly, heart-warming world of bees and flowers. Isn’t nature wonderful?

All photos from Wikipedia, as follows:

Helicodiceros muscivorus: Göteborgs botaniska trädgård (photographer: Ingemar Johansson) – http://www.mynewsdesk.com/se/pressroom/goteborgs_botaniska_tradgard/image/view/dracunculus-muscivorus-128973, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19265330

Huernia zebrina: Enzo^ – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10963668

Huernia schneideriana: Juan Carlos Fonseca Mata – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=94705877

“Bee Together” with YDMT – pollinator online talks during January and February

As I write a slow haze of fine snow is falling, covering our garden with a thin white dusting. Spring feels a long way off, despite the emerging spears of daffodil leaves. But you can get a taste of what the new season will bring by signing up for a short series of free evening online talks on the topic of pollinators that has been organised by the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust – here’s the link for the Bee Together programme – and here’s more details of the talks:

Thursday January 28 at 7pm: Pollinators and Pollination: Nature and Society
An overview of the diversity of pollinators in Britain, why they are important, and the threats to that diversity with Jeff Ollerton.

Thursday February 18 (7pm): The B-Lines Project
Buglife’s B-Lines network is an imaginative solution to the problem of the loss of flowers and pollinators. B-Lines are a series of ‘insect pathways’ running through our countryside and towns, along which Buglife are restoring and creating a series of wildflower-rich habitat stepping stones. Catherine Jones talks about mapping the recently completed B-Lines map and some of the projects that have already created habitat for pollinators.

Thursday February 25 (7pm): The Hidden Lives of Garden Bees
Brigit Strawbridge Howard will explain some of the basic differences between bumblebees, solitary bees, and honeybees – including lifecycles and nesting behaviour; the problems they all face; and, most important, what we can do to help. Brigit is a wildlife gardener, amateur naturalist and advocate of bees. She writes and campaigns to raise awareness of the importance of native wild bees, and is the author of Dancing with Bees: A Journey Back to Nature.

I hope to see some of you there: Happy New Year everyone!

Finally, a physical copy of my book!

Yesterday I was delighted to finally receive an advance copy of my book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society! It’s been over three years in the writing and production, much longer than I had anticipated. But, as I describe in its pages, the book is the culmination of >50 years of experience, study and research. So perhaps three years isn’t so bad…

If you’re interested in buying a copy you can order it direct from Pelagic Publishing and from most of the large online booksellers. Let me know what you think.

Magnolia, Mississippi, and American politics: a guest post

This is a short guest post by Dr Peter Bernhardt who recently retired as a professor at St Louis University and continues to be active in pollination biology.

Each of the 50 American states has its own flag. On Election Day in November 2020 the citizens of the state of Mississippi will vote on whether they want a new flag featuring the flower of their state tree, the southern magnolia or bull bay (Magnolia grandiflora). Of the eight Magnolia species native to the continental United States six have natural distributions including the state of Mississippi.

By voting in the magnolia flag Mississippians drop its 126-year old predecessor, which incorporated an emblem (the stainless banner) adopted by southern states during the American Civil War (1861-1865). This will also mean that Mississippi will be the only state with a flag depicting a flower in which tepals, stamens and carpels are all arranged in a continuous spiral and is pollinated by beetles (see Leonard Thien’s study published in 1974). 

The popularity of M. grandifora far exceeds silviculture in the American south as successful exports stretch over two centuries and its cultigens are found as far as China and Australia.

Politics in America have turned floral in the last months of 2020: kamala, as in vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris, is an Indian word for sacred lotus (Nelumbo nucifera). 

To which Jeff adds: the flag above is the one that Mississippi citizens will be voting on – follow the link at the start to get the full story of the competition that was run to select a new flag.