Sunday 28 August 2011

Fig Wasp

Last time, we took a good look at the Strangler Fig, leaving it a mighty, all-conquering victor of the forest, having brutally murdered the competition. Now it's the next step - reproduction. Of course, this is also the story of how the Strangler's seed was left on the unsuspecting tree in the first place.

So I suppose it's:

Strangler Fig 2: The Prequel

Prequels are usually the 3rd or 4th in the series, once everyone has run out of both the really good and the mediocre ideas. This one on the other hand was planned from the very start so it's great all the way through, baby!

Anyway, the Strangler Fig (or indeed any other kind of fig tree) is now a really huge tree and it wants to get itself pollinated. Like loads of other plants it does this using flowers. The thing is, you can't actually see the flowers.

Image by ⓣⓨⓁⓔⓡ~* via Flcikr
It produces figs, and we call them fruit, but it isn't really a proper fruit at all. Nor is it a vegetable. It clearly follows that it must therefore be a syconium. Obviously.

The syconium is basically a cluster of flowers turned inside out. There is skin and flesh on the outside, and all the flowers point inside to a hollow space in the middle of the fig. These are flowers that you can only see if you cut the fig in half.

So what could possibly be the pollinator of the Strangler Fig? It's not beautiful butterflies or hard-working bees, nor a bird with a really long tongue. It is, in fact, a teeny, tiny wasp called the Fig Wasp. You may have already gathered that...

There are loads of Fig Wasps, and each one has a relationship with a particular species of Fig. So let's see how this works.

It starts with a pregnant, female wasp, crawling out of a fig. She's covered in fig pollen. It sounds like we're at the end of the story and missed everything already! Endings tend to be the beginnings of something new, though.

So, our wasp takes wing, seeking out a fig of the same species as the one she left. Weirdly, if the wind is right she can travel farther than any other pollen bearing insect, about 100 miles. Not bad for an insect some 1.5 millimetres long.

Soon she discovers a new fig. It'll be green and hard, but there will be flowers waiting for her inside.

She clambers in through a tiny hole and a tiny tunnel. It's a tight squeeze. So tight, that her wings are ripped off in the process.

She passes by the immature male flowers and moves on to the female ones. These are now dusted with the pollen she took from the other fig. Our new fig is now fertilised. The rent is paid. So what does the wasp get in return for her long flight, bout of caving and having her wings torn off in the process?

The truth is there are 2 kinds of female flowers in the fig, a long one and a short one. The long ones are useless to the wasp, it is there that the fig seeds develop. However, the short ones are of great interest to her. They're short enough for her to lay eggs in using her ovipositor, after which, she soon dies.

The fig fruit is now the grave of a wasp mother and nursery to her young and the fig's seeds.

The fig now grows tissue around the wasp eggs, much like the galls many plants grow after irritation and infection. It's enough tissue to provide the larval wasps with food to grow and pupate, preparing for adulthood.

Male wasps emerge first and it just so happens that they don't have eyes or wings. The first thing they do is seek out females to mate with, fertilising them as they remain in their galls.

They then set about digging a path out of the fig and toward fresh air and sunshine. After this, they promptly die.

Adult females now emerge, already pregnant with eggs. They seek a way out, taking pollen from the now mature male flowers. Eventually they discover the tunnels made by the males and, thankfully, they can get through them without their wings getting torn off.

It ends with a pregnant, female wasp, crawling out of a fig.

The fig will eventually get eaten by something or other - they're very popular among forest animals. Passing through the digestive system, the fig seeds will be deposited, hopefully somewhere in the branches of a tree. After all that cruelty bestowed on a tiny wasp, it's time to apply it to a gigantic tree.

For the Fig Wasp, it seems that their entire lifecycle is utterly devoted to figs and reproduction. There's really no time for the little fellows to just sit back and contemplate the absurdity of it all.

So let's take a look at the basic points here:

  1. A Strangler Fig stands triumphant in murder.
  2. It produces flowers. hidden and covered in it's own flesh.
  3. A Fig Wasp enters the fig, but the Strangler ensures the passage is so narrow that the wasp's wings are ripped off.
  4. The wasp lays her eggs and then dies.
  5. The fig feeds the young wasps with what appear to be unsightly boils.
  6. The male wasps emerge, clamber over the dead body of their mother and mate with their own sisters, who aren't actually adults yet.
  7. The males then dig themselves out of the fig, responding to their newly found and hard won freedom by immediately dying because they've done their job and what's the point anymore.
  8. The females finally emerge and, already pregnant, crawl through the tunnels the males left behind.
  9. Once out of the fig, the females respond to their newly found and hard won freedom by immediately seeking out a whole new fig to crawl into and get their wings ripped off.
  10. THIS is how the Strangler Fig reproduces.
What's wrong with pretty flowers and butterflies?

I ask you:

Can't the Strangler Fig do anything right?


TexWisGirl said...

oh. my. goodness. such rape and brutality this early in the morning! ugh!

Joseph JG said...

Hyeh... well, that's the world we live in! That might be why I don't do or think anything until at least a few sips of coffee.

Crunchy said...

This is so violent and depraved I'm amazed Shakespeare never wrote a play about it.

I don't think I'm ever going to eat another fig. It's fascinating to me that it's actually a cluster of flowers. Horrifying that it could actually contain LIVE, ANGRY WASPS.

Joseph JG said...

I doubt people in those days knew, if they even knew about figs. Had they seen it, it's quite likely they would've thought that the fig somehow turns into the wasps. That kind of thinking was common until remarkably recently.

But yeh, it's a really incredible thing. Also nasty. Still, the wasps are probably too small to cause any actual harm. It could be a good way for you to get a bit of protein!

Crunchy said...

Figs aren't supposed to be crunchy. :(

Joseph JG said...

Hahaha! Reminds me of a scene from Red Dwarf, but that was maggots in a strawberry.