Wednesday 12 November 2014

Fairy Lantern, Thismia

Image: Tindo2
A tiny, wondrous cheat? Or a glimpse into fairy biotechnology?

Have you heard of mycorrhiza? It's the name of the delicate relationship established between some fungi and many plants.

Image: Tindo2
Thismia rodwayi
The fungus has a root-like network of fine threads that spread out in search of food. They use enzymes to derive minerals out of decaying matter. Sometimes they produce more minerals than they actually need. So if those fine threads happen to be right next to, or even inside, the roots of a plant that is unable to produce those fancy enzymes... Perhaps a deal is in order?

An alliance is struck. The plant provides the fungus with sugars it gets from photosynthesis and in return the fungus becomes an elite army of subterranean mineral producers, scouring the earth for food and drawing nutrients from material the plant is incapable of dealing with.

Image: rmounce
The Fairy Lanterns we're talking about are different. And just so you know, we're not talking about the big lilies from California. Even though they are found mostly in Mount Diablo, which is cool. Er, hot.

Thismia Fairy Lanterns see those juicy fungus roots full of delicious goodies and think "'l'll 'ave that." They attach themselves to the fungus and draw in the nutrients that had been produced by the plant via photosynthesis. They're like a band of raiders attacking a caravan trade route.

Image: rmounce
Thus, Thismia live like mean-spirited fungi.

Fungi spend most of their time as underground threads and occasionally grow a mushroom to spread their spores. Thismia spend most of their time as thieving roots and occasionally grow a tiny flower for pollination. They have no chlorophyll and no leaves because they simply don't need them.

It's not easy to uncover information about these plants, partly no doubt because it's not easy to uncover the plants themselves. There seems to be something of a mystery as to how pollination takes place, with suggestions that it might be achieved by tiny fungus gnats or animals that feed on roots and fungi.

Either way, the 50 or so species in the genus typically have a very constrained distribution, which means their pollen and seeds seldom go far. They all live in the southern hemisphere, in South and Central America and from Japan through to New Zealand.

Image: rmounce
And that brings up another mystery: Thismia americana, from Illinois, USA. It was discovered in 1912 growing in the wetlands that surround Lake Calumet in Chicago. There's been a whole lot of industrial development since then and the plant hasn't been seen since 1916. Several Thismia Hunts since then have turned up nothing and it's widely thought to be extinct.

It's so sad to lose it. This strange outlier who apparently survived so far from all its relatives. Are there others in other parts of North America? Was it a relic from ancient times that clung to life in the few remaining micro-habitats that could sustain it? Was it a seed from a completely different part of the world that somehow found itself in Chicago and managed to flower? It looks like we will never know.

I bet the fairies are livid...


TexWisGirl said...

freaky little things!

Crunchy said...

The red ones look like a trio of conjoined, eyeless, skinned frogs. Eternally screaming, of course.

Porakiya said...

that blue one looks really alien

Lear's Fool said...

If I ever had a plant at work, I'd like to have a bunch of parasitic plants that are busy beating each other up than just a ficus or something

Porakiya said...

Oh yeah! Did you make sure to get that one issue of National Geographic that I told you about?

Esther said...

Why does the prettiest plant have to have such a mean spirit? :(

Lear's Fool said...

It's Evidorable!

Joseph JG said...

@TexWisGirl: They sure are!

@Crunchy: Holy moley! These fairies are MONSTERS!

@Porakiya Draekojin: Alien, yeah. Or maybe a blue ice cream?

Uh oh... I didn't get that Nat Geo. Is it still around? Maybe I can pop down to a big bookshop and find it. I hope!

@Lear's Fool: Yeah, a nice competitive plant with its fists up rather than some layabout sitting there being pretty!

@Esther: Maybe they had to be pretty to get away with it? Maybe the fungal police are rather unprofessional that way>

Porakiya said...

@Joseph: Yes, it's still around

Porakiya said...

@Joseph: here's the online variant, though without all the pictures:

Joseph JG said...

Wow... nice. I'll still look for a copy tomorrow or Monday. "All the pictures" sounds like something it's best not to do without!

Porakiya said...

Yes. and, apparently, I didn't notice the gallery in the upper right corner....or the comic-style stories underneath. Apparently there are pictures in the gallery that aren't in the magazine

Joseph JG said...

I'll give it a good look tomorrow. I noticed there was some kind of comic there... weird!

Porakiya said...

Yup! there's three of them, with a video above them and the picture gallery above that