For the first time, orchids that consume fungi have been observed offering their flowers to fungi-eating fruit flies in return for pollination services. This discovery represents the first evidence of nursery pollination in orchids. This unique new plant-animal relationship hints at an evolutionary transition towards mutualistic symbiosis.
Orchids are well known to trick their pollinators into visiting the flowers by imitating food sources, breeding grounds, or even mates without actually offering anything in return. The fungi-eating, non-photosynthetic orchid genus Gastrodia is no different: To attract fruit flies (Drosophila spp.), the plants usually emit a smell like their common diet of fermented fruits or decaying mushrooms.
The fruit flies get lured into the flowers, are trapped there for a short while, and get pollen attached to their backs, which they then transport to other plants of the same species. Thus, this deceptive relationship offers benefits to only one partner.
Kobe University plant biologist Suetsugu Kenji, a specialist on these orchids, noticed that a certain species of this genus, Gastrodia foetida, has particularly fleshy petals that decompose and fall off a few days after pollination. He decided to investigate these plants in the search for the first example of orchids engaging in “nursery pollination,” which is a plant offering a breeding ground to its pollinator.
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