Lily has pollination licked, shrewd study says
Academic reveals for the first time how elephant shrews aid plants
A STICKY concoction of peanut butter and rolled oats can’t match the nectar of the pagoda lily when it comes to tingling the taste buds of elephant shrews in the Cape.
This is according to findings by Dr Petra Wester of the University of Stellenbosch, which reveal for the first time how the shrews have been observed feeding on nectar and pollinating the Cederberg’s pagoda lilies.
Her research, published in the jour nal Naturwissenschaften (The Science of Nature), shows how elephant shrews lick the nectar of the flowers and pollinate them.
Wester, of the department of botany and zoology, says data on elephant shrews as pollinators is extremely scarce.
“This study is the first to clearly show that Elephantulus edwardii visits flowers for nectar and, as a consequence, also pollinates them.”
She studied the behaviour of the animals in the northern Cederberg, where pagoda lilies are found in shady rock crevices and cavities.
Over four nights, she placed mammal traps with bait – a mixture of peanut butter and rolled oats – near the lily plants. The following day she collected the animals caught in the traps and their faeces.
Two elephants shrews caught in the traps were released into glass terrariums containing flowering lily plants, where she observed their foraging behaviour. They visited the flowers more than 50 times over four days, moving from one flower cluster to another.
She explains how the animals, with their long, flexible noses, went between the stamens and the ovary and licked the nectar. In the process, they touched the pollen sacs and their noses got dusted with pollen. The animals then touched the stigmas.
“The elephant shrews indulged in the nectar without feeding on pollen directly or eating, damaging or destroying the flowers… Interestingly, the animals preferred the nectar over the other food – peanut butter with rolled oats and apples – and over water.”
Wester’s research also revealed the faecal samples of the elephant shrews contained pollen from pagoda lilies, the likely result of fur grooming after flower visits, rather than actual feeding on pollen.
“Elephant shrews are mainly insectivorous, but they also seem to be keen on other food, like nectar, as shown here.
“As the nectar (of this plant species) is not available the whole year, nectar might be only a ‘snack’ for the elephant shrews; they seem not to be dependent on it as they eat mainly insects.
“The pagoda lily is dependent on pollinators to set fruits, but this species is also pollinated by mice. This study shows that elephant shrews play a more important role as pollinators than thought.”
Elephant Shrew: For the first time, these animals have been found to pollinate plants.