How a Plant Could Just Kill a Man, part one

Plants have killed plenty of people. When plants are implicated in the death of a human, we typically think of plant poisonings. Rightly so since their are a slew of poisonous plants with the potential to kill. However, oftentimes plants kill (or seriously injure) people without employing toxic substances. One of the best examples of this is falling plant parts. Gravity couples with sheer coincidence and/or human error, and tragedy ensues. In an episode entitled Killer Plants of the now defunct podcast, Caustic Soda, the hosts present some of these distressing scenarios. What follows is a summary of the plants that made their list.

Branches falling from trees, whether dead or alive, can cause some serious damage. Trees in the genus Eucalyptus, commonly known as gum trees, are one group to be particularly wary of. There are more than 700 species of Eucalyptus, most of which occur in Australia. Not all are large trees, but those that are can be massive, reaching from 100 to 200 feet and taller. Eucalyptus trees regularly shed branches, often unexpectedly, leading to serious injury or death to anyone who may find themselves on the ground below. Shedding branches is likely a strategy for conserving water during hot, dry summers, and it is common enough that Australian parks departments issue safety advisories to avoid parking or camping below the trees. Even arborists don’t take their chances with these unpredictable trees.

Red River Gum Tree Eucalyptus camaldulensis - photo credit: wikimedia commons

River red gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Of course, eucalyptus trees are not the only trees that drop their branches without warning. A falling branch in Yosemite National Park claimed two victims last summer, for example; and falling branches have claimed the lives of a great deal of forest workers, wildland firefighters, and other forest visitors. This happens frequently enough that the branches in question have been given the ominous name widowmakers, and the U.S. Department of Labor lists them as one of many “potential hazards” in the logging industry. What are the chances of being killed by a falling tree? The Ranger’s Blog set out to answer that question and, to set your mind at ease, determined that the chances are pretty slim.

What about other falling plants? Saguaro cactus, for example. Carnegiea gigantea is a tree-like, columnar cactus native to the Sonoran Desert. It is a very slow growing and long-lived species that generally reaches around 40 feet tall but can potentially grow much taller. Saguaros are considered tree-like for their tall stature and branching habit, although not all saguaros develop branches. Some saguaro branches (or “arms”) can be quite large and considerably heavy. In 1982, an Arizona man discovered this when he and a friend were out shooting saguaros. Stupidly, the man repeatedly shot at the arm of an enormous cactus. Ultimately the arm split off and landed on the man, crushing him to death. Of course, saguaros don’t have to be shot at to fall on you. Another Arizona man was fixing a water leak in a Yuma subdivision when a sixteen foot tall saguaro toppled over on him. The man was crushed but lived to tell about it.

Saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Palm trees drop things on people, too. One tragic example involves a man in Los Angeles standing below a Canary Island date palm (Phoenix canariensis) waiting for a ride to a funeral. The 2000 pound crown of the palm tree split and fell, pinning the man to the ground. Bystanders were unable to remove the crown, and the man died.

The coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) has an additional deadly weapon – its fruit. While the number of deaths by coconut are often exaggerated, they do occasionally occur. Injuries by coconut are more frequent, so precaution around the trees should be taken. After all, coconut palms can reach heights of 80 feet or more, and mature coconuts can weigh more than three pounds (considerably more when they are wet). A falling coconut is something to be mindful of, an observation that led Dr. Peter Barss to study coconut related injuries in Papa New Guinea over a period of 4 years. His research was published in 1984 in the Journal of Trauma and was later taken out of context and used to make the claim that coconuts kill significantly more people per year than sharks. Publicity spawned by this urban myth helped Barss earn an Ig Noble Prize in 2001. Concerns about coconut related injuries also led officials in India to order the removal of coconut palms around the Gandhi Museum in preparations for President Barack Obama’s 2010 visit.

Back in Australia, the towering bunya pine (Araucaria bidwillii) has its equivalent to the coconut in its massive cone. Measuring around a foot long and weighing in at 20+ pounds, these cones make living near bunya pines an act that is “not for the faint hearted.” When the cones are falling, they warrant warnings from the Australian government to keep away from these 90 foot tall trees. This harrowing feature puts bunya pines on a list of infamous plants in Australia with the potential to kill.

Bunya pine cone (Araucaria bidwillii) - photo credit: www.eol.org

Seed cone of bunya pine (Araucaria bidwillii) – photo credit: www.eol.org

Advertisements

Bats As Pollinators – An Introduction to Chiropterophily

Most plants that rely on animals to assist in pollination look to insects. In general, insects are abundant, easy to please, and efficient at transferring pollen. Because insect pollination is such a common scenario, it is easy to overlook pollination that is carried out by vertebrates. Birds are the most prominent pollinator among vertebrates, but mammals participate, too. The most common mammal pollinator is the bat.

About a fifth of all mammal species on the planet are bats, with species estimates numbering in the 1200-1300 range. Bats are the only mammals that can truly fly. They are not blind, nor are they flying rodents, and they are not going to suck your blood (except in very rare cases!). Most bats eat insects, but a small, significant group of them are nectarivorous. Their main food source is the nectar produced within flowers. In the process of feeding, these bats pollinate plants.

Out of 18 families in the order Chiroptera, only two include species with morphologies that set them apart as nectar-feeders. The family Pteropodidae, known commonly as Old World fruit bats or flying foxes, occurs in tropical and subtropical regions of Africa, Asia, Australia, Papa New Guinea, and the Pacific Islands. The family Phyllostomidae, known commonly as American leaf-nosed bats, occurs in tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas. For simplicity’s sake, the former are referred to as Old World bats, and the latter as New World bats. While both groups are similar in that they consist of species that feed on nectar, they are only distantly related, and thus the nectar feeding species in these families have distinct behavioral and morphological differences.

Grey headed flying fox photo credit: wikimedia commons

Grey headed flying fox (Pteropus poliocephalus), a floral visiting bat from Australia (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

More than 500 species of plants, spanning 67 plant families, are pollinated by bats. This pollination syndrome is known as chiropterophily. In general, flowers that use this approach tend to be white or dull in color, open at night, rich with nectar, and musty or rotten smelling. They are generally tubular, cup shaped, or otherwise radially symmetrical and are often suspended atop tall stalks or prominently located on branches or trunks. In a review published in Annals of Botany, Theodore Fleming, et al. state “flower placement away from foliage and nocturnal anthesis [blooming] are the unifying features of the bat pollination syndrome,” while all other characteristics are highly variable among species. The family Fabaceae contains the highest number of bat-pollinated genera. Cactaceae, Malvaceae, and Bignoniaceae follow closely behind.

The characteristics of bat pollinated flowers vary widely partly because the bats that visit them are so diverse. Between the two bat families there are similarities in their nectar-feeding species, including an elongated rostrum, teeth that are smaller in number and size, and a long tongue with hair-like projections on the tip. Apart from that, New World bats are much smaller than Old World bats, and their rostrums and tongues are much longer relative to the size of their bodies. New World bats have the ability to hover in front of flowers, while Old World bats land on flowers to feed. Old World bats do not have the ability to use echolocation to spot flowers, while New World bats do. Fleming, et al. conclude, “because of these differences, we might expect plants visited by specialized nectar-feeding [New World bats] to produce smaller flowers with smaller nectar volumes per flower than those visited by their [Old World bat] counterparts.”

Pollination by bats is a relatively new phenomenon, evolutionarily speaking. Flowers that are currently pollinated by bats most likely evolved from flowers that were once pollinated by insects. Some may have evolved from flowers that were previously bird pollinated. The question is, why adopt this strategy? Flowers that are bat pollinated are “expensive” to make. They are typically much bigger than insect pollinated flowers, and they contain large amounts of pollen and abundant, nutrient-rich nectar. Due to resource constraints, many plants are restricted from developing such flowers, but those that do may find themselves at an advantage with bats as their pollinator. For one, hairy bat bodies collect profuse numbers of pollen grains, which are widely distributed as they visit numerous flowers throughout the night. In this way, bats can be excellent outcrossers. They also travel long distances, which means they can move pollen from one population of plants to an otherwise isolated neighboring population. This serves to maintain healthy genetic diversity among populations, something that is increasingly important as plant populations become fragmented due to human activity.

Pollinating bats are also economically important to humans, as several plants that are harvested for their fruits, fibers, or timber rely on bats for pollination. For example, bat pollinated Eucalyptus species are felled for timber in Australia, and the fruits of Durio zibethinus in Southeast Asia form after flowers are first pollinated by bats. Also, the wild relatives of bananas (Musa spp.) are bat pollinated, as is the plant used for making tequila (Agave tequilana).

Durio sp. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

The flowers of durian (Durio sp.), trees native to Southeast Asia, are pollinated by bats (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

There is still much to learn about nectarivorous bats and the flowers they visit. It is clear that hundreds of species are using bats to move their pollen, but the process of adopting this strategy and the advantages of doing so remain ripe for discovery. Each bat-plant relationship has its own story to tell. For now, here is a fun video about the bat that pollinates Agave tequilana: