Lily has pol­li­na­tion licked, shrewd study says

Aca­demic re­veals for the first time how ele­phant shrews aid plants

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - NEWS - SHEREE BEGA

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.”

PIC­TURE: PE­TRA WESTER

Ele­phant Shrew: For the first time, these an­i­mals have been found to pol­li­nate plants.

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