Is there a blood sucking orchid lurking in the mysterious cloud forests of Ecuador? Are its fangs just waiting to impale some unsuspecting creature as it passes the sinister bloom? CryptoVille had to investigate this one!
According to biologists, Dracula orchids are real and there are 150 or so species of these types of orchids that use mimicry to lure pollinators into their sticky grasp. They’re found in Central America and the northwest areas of the Andes Mountains which are part of South America. (Image above right by chachimpski on Deviant.)
The scientists focused on the plants’ use of mimicry to try and determine how that behavior evolved and how it could be used to ensure the survival of these plants as their natural habitat rapidly decreases.
According to University of Oregon (UO) biologist, Barbara “Bitty” Roy, “Mimicry is one of the best examples of natural selection that we have. How mimicry evolves is a big question in evolutionary biology. In this case, there are about 150 species of these orchids. How are they pollinated? What sorts of connections are there? It’s a case where these orchids plug into an entire endangered system. This work was done in the last unlogged watershed in western Ecuador, where cloud forests are disappearing at an alarming rate.” (Photo left of Dracula vampira.)
What’s in a Name
Dracula (“little dragon”) orchids were so named because people thought they saw a dragon’s face in the arrangement of their petals, but others swore the blossom looked like the blood-sucking count in his bat form. Either way, this little orchid has a very sneaky way of getting what it wants, much like the mythical Count.
Science tells us these orchids imitate mushrooms by resembling them and smelling like them. The targeted pollinators are the Drosophilidae family of flies, of which there are about 11 species living near the orchids. Guess who loves mushrooms? That’s right, the Drosophildae family of flies.
Tobias Policha, a plant scientist at UO’s Institute of Ecology and Evolution, said, “Dracula orchids look and smell like mushrooms. We wanted to understand what it is about the flowers that is attractive to these mushroom-visiting flies.” (Image right of D. wallisii in Ecuador.)
According to Roy, “What the orchid wants the fly to do when it arrives is to crawl into the column, whereupon the orchid sticks a pollinium [a gooey, saddlebag-like mass containing the orchid’s pollen] onto the fly so that the fly can’t possibly get it off. The fly then goes to another orchid, which then pulls it off.”
The flies apparently love this arrangement because they eat the yeast growing inside the orchid, have been known to mate while on the orchids, then go lay their eggs on mushrooms also growing in the area.
The scientists used 3-D printer technology to create fake Dracula orchids that they used in the study. They were able to experiment with the appearance of these orchids to see what exactly attracts the flies to them. Artist Melinda Barnadas of Magpie Studio experimented with the color and look of these fake orchids to help the scientists find the factor(s) attracting the flies. (Photo left shows a real Dracula orchid on the left, with painted reproductions in the center and right. This is how the scientists conducted their experiments.)
Turns out the labellum, attached to the orchid’s reproductive column, is the key. The labellum sort of looks like a mushroom. Here’s a photo of the labellum of D. vampira compared to a nearby Gilled mushroom.
Amazing, isn’t it?
Dracula orchids, another fascinating creation of Mother Nature! The sad part is how quickly those cloud forests are disappearing in South America along with everything living in them. Hopefully the scientists will be able to figure out how to help these orchids survive so they never join the roster of plant cryptids.
What do you think about this?