May 19

Organism of the week #30 – Sticky situation

All science is either physics or stamp-collecting.

This rather mean-spirited dismissal of chemistry and biology as “stamp-collecting” is attributed to Ernest Rutherford, the physicist usually (not wholly fairly) credited with discovering the atomic nucleus and the proton.

Shortly after Rutherford’s death in 1937, particle physicists discovered the muon, pi mesons, kaons, the electron neutrino, the anti-proton, the lambda baryon, xi cascades, and sigma baryons. It took physicists the thirty years following Rutherford’s death to make sense of this veritable album of subatomic stamps.

Nature has a sense of irony, but its comic timing needs work.

There’s nothing wrong with stamp-collecting. Science very often begins with stamp-collecting, because it’s only once you have enough stamps that you can start reliably identifying patterns in the stamps, and – from there – finding the interesting exceptions and edge-cases:

Baryon supermultiplet [CC-BY-SA-3.0 Studzinski.daniel]

Subatomic particle stamp-album [CC-BY-SA-3.0 Studzinski.daniel]

I have been an on-off collector of carnivorous plants since I was very little. Most of them attract insects, kill them, digest them to tasty soup, and then absorb that soup. The soup contains useful nutrients that are missing from the soil in which they are rooted, so this helps them grow and set more seed. But there are many plants that tick some of these carnivorous boxes, but not all of them. Roridula is one I’ve blogged about before: it subcontracts out the digestion part of the process to an assassin bug. Another plant that walks the line is a kind of passionflower:

Passiflora foetida bud [CC-BY-3.0 Alex Lomas]

Passiflora foetida bud

The charmingly-named stinking passionflower bears sticky hairs on tentacle-like growths around its flower buds. There is some evidence to suggest that these help protect the flower bud from hungry insects while it develops. Similar sticky hairs are also thought to protect the flower buds of a number of other plants.

The stinking passionflower kills insects, and even appears to digest them, but it doesn’t benefit from the nutrients this releases. However, it does benefit from not having its flowers damaged by herbivorous insects. This presumably means it sets more seed, so the ultimate effect – more baby plants – is the same as for ‘true’ carnivory.

Passiflora foetida flower [CC-BY-3.0 Alex Lomas]

Passiflora foetida flower. The reason these plants are called passionflowers is because the various parts of the flower are supposed to look like hammers, nails and a crown of thorns – items associated with the Passion (crucifixion) of Jesus – rather than the earthly passions you might have been considering

Is this plant carnivorous or not? Well, whether you ultimately choose to paste this stamp into the carnivorous plant album or not is very much less interesting than the reasons you have for making that decision. I’m just glad that someone discovered this particular stamp and took the care to stick it somewhere for us to study. Here’s to collectors and taxonomists, the unsung heroes of biology.

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