Weird Nature: Valentine's Day Edition

From subsonic booming parrots to blue-balled vervet monkeys, nature expresses love in all kinds of crazy forms. In celebration of Valentine’s Day just past, we’re going to explore a strikingly sneaky love story playing out right here in Australia.

Our story begins in a tiny corner of Western Australia, with orchids. These aren’t your typical bright and tropical orchids though – they’re small, hairy and purple-brown, and they’re called hammer orchids. There’s a very good reason they’re not so pretty, and it all has to do with pollination.

In order for a plant to reproduce, pollen has to be transferred from one plant to another. Most flowers will attract pollinators, like insects and hummingbirds, by producing nectar (a food source) and emitting a strong aroma. Some flowers have evolved to emanate rather unusual odours; for example the Carrion flower emits the fetid stench of rotting flesh to attract beetles and flies as pollinators.

Hammer orchids emit an even more unusual smell, one that humans can’t detect. But this smell is irresistible to male thynnine wasps, because it smells exactly like female thynnine wasps. What’s more, not only do the orchids smell like sexy female wasps, they also look like them too! This so called “sexual deception” seduces wasps looking for love, and they attempt to mate with the orchid in a process called “pseudocopulation.” During this affair, pollen is transferred from the orchid to the pollinator, which he can then deposit on the next orchid that deceives him. Pretty sneaky, huh?

Image from National Geographic

At the (there’s something in the style guide about ‘the ANU’, but I’m not sure if it was in favour or against. I’ll double check and change it accordingly when I have access to dropbox) ANU, we have several people studying the chemical relationship between hammer orchids and thynnine wasps. Hammer orchids are endemic to western Australia and they’re very rare, so it’s hoped that by understanding these strange quirks of nature we can improve our efforts to save them. Let’s hope this love story has a happy ending.

So, the next time you’re out on the town, implementing the art of seduction in a nightclub or bar, I hope you’re reminded of nature’s greatest seducers: hammer orchids – so good even entirely different species desire them. Perhaps take a cue from these flowery Casanovas, and fake it ’til you make it.