"So, naturalists observe, a flea has smaller fleas that on him prey; and these have smaller still to bite ’em; and so proceed ad infinitum."
- Jonathan Swift

March 9, 2019

Mitrastemon yamamotoi

Parasitic plant are among the most enigmatic plants on the planet - they spend most of their life completely out of view until it comes time for them to reproduce. Mitrastemon yamamotoi is one such plant, and it is found in the tropical and subtropical forest of Southeast Asia and Japan. This plant parasitises the roots of the evergreen tree Itajii Chinkapin, and only part of this parasite which is visible to any outside observers are small flowers that poke out from the undergrowth - the rest of the plant is completely embedded within its host's roots.
Top: Male stage (left), Transitional stage (centre), Female stage (right)
Bottom: Some of the insect visitors of M. yamamotoi including (from left to right) hornet, cricket, beetle, cockroach
Top row of photos from Fig 1 of the paper. Bottom row of photos from Fig 2 of the paper.

Mitrastemon yamamotoi is protandrous - which means their flowers go through a male phase before transforming into their female form. This kind of sequential sex change is quite common in the flowers of various plants, but it is also found in many different animals as well.

Aside from plants that spread their pollen haphazardly by wind or water, most flowering plants need pollinators - so what would pollinate this parasitic flower? In New Zealand, short-tailed bats are the pollinator for a parasitic plant called the wood rose (Dactylanthus taylorii). In Central and South America, another parasitic plant - Langsdorffia hypogaea - is pollinated by a range of insects (and possibly birds). So what about M. yamamotoi?

A researchers in Japan embarked on a study to investigate the sex lives of these plants, using both direct observation and via remote camera. The remote camera was rigged to be set off by any movement from animals, however insects are too small to be able trigger the camera, so the researcher did it the old fashion naturalist way. This involved spending many hours each day sitting by the flower clusters, watching for any insect that came by, and using red lamps to continue observations during nighttime.

Throughout the period of study between October 2008 to November 2011, the remote cameras failed to capture any photos of animals visiting the M. yamamotoi flowers - since the cameras can only be set off by comparatively larger animals such as birds and small mammals and it seems that none of them were all that interested in the parasite's flowers.

While the flowers of M. yamamotoi seemed have been snobbed by the feathery and furry beasties, they were rather popular with the creepy crawlies. All manner of insect including wasps, crickets, cockroaches, flies, beetles, and ants visited the flowers. Among those, beetles seem to be particular good pollinators as they would visit multiple flowers in one go, carrying with them pollen from each of the flowers that they had visited. The author of the paper did note that since the study was conducted on the southern part of Yakushima Island, this is near northern end of this parasite's distribution, so in other regions it might be visited by different type of animals.

Parasitic plants are among the most endangered organisms on the planet for most of them we don't know just how endangered they might be. Like other parasites, they are deeply interconnected with the rest of the ecosystem. And while insects like wasps and cockroaches tend to get a bad rap from people, for some organisms, they are a vital lifeline.

Suetsugu, K. (2019). Social wasps, crickets and cockroaches contribute to pollination of the holoparasitic plant Mitrastemon yamamotoi (Mitrastemonaceae) in southern Japan. Plant Biology 21: 176-182.

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