University of Stockholm have discovered a new plant dubbed Ephedra foeminea that relies on lunar cycle for its survival through pollination.
Otherwise dubbed as an ugly shrub, the Ephedra foeminiea acts as a sort of wereplant, transforming itself into a fertile mass of bright red and yellow cones. This species of plants is a non-flowering relative of conifers and according to researchers it secretes globules of sugary liquid on nights when there is a full moon in a bid to attract nocturnal pollinating insects.
Using these droplets, the plant absorbs any pollen carried by pollinators including moths and flies that land on the plant and uses them to fertilise its seeds. Researchers believe that the plant relies on moonlight as the light causes reflection from the sugary liquid which catch the attention of the insects.
Catarina Rydin, a botanist at the University of Stockholm and one of the researchers behind the discovery, revealed that other plants in this species arose about 130 million years ago in the Early Cretaceous and they would have likely served as dinosaur food.
Based on fossil records, Rydin suspects that Ephedra might have saved itself from extinction by shifting from a predominantly insect-pollinated system to one dependent on wind notes smithsonian.com.
“Historically, climate change has occurred repeatedly, not least in the aftermath of the meteorite impact 65 million years ago, and wind-pollination may have been a safer method to ensure reproduction during such times,” she says. “It is thus possible that insect-pollinated species of Ephedra had a greater risk of becoming extinct.”
In a bid to better understand the evolution of these plants and how they reproduce, Rydin along with her doctoral student, Kristina Bolinder, headed to Greece, to count insects and keep an eye out for pollen droplets. E. foeminiea’s pollination methods were elusive and even after those cones appeared, they didn’t open and hence wind based pollination wasn’t the one the likely candidate.
“Based on four seasons of field studies, we show an unexpected correlation between pollination and the phases of the moon in one of our studied species, Ephedra foeminea”, reads the abstract of the study published in Biology Letters. “It is pollinated by dipterans and lepidopterans, most of them nocturnal, and its pollination coincides with the full moon of July.”
A connection between E. foeminiea’s pollination and lunar cycle – something that started off as a joke one evening – started becoming more of a plausible scenario and researchers found evidence that this was in fact the case.
Researchers reveal that the soft light of the full moon revealed droplets of pollen, which were shimmering and sparkling on the brightly colored cones. This glittering, researchers reveal, is possibly to attract insects including the flies and moths.
Though light from a half-moon is sufficient to illuminate the pollen, the plant maximises its efficiency during a full moon as it is present almost throughout the night and insects have a full night to navigate using the moon.
[Editor’s Note: Rectified a typo in the first paragraph of the story where it was mentioned planet instead of plant.]