In Praise of Poison Ivy

This is a guest post by Margaret Gargiullo. Visit her website, Plants of Suburbia, and check out her books for sale on Amazon.


No one seems to like Toxicodendron radicans, but poison ivy is an important plant in our urban and suburban natural areas. Poison ivy (Anacardiaceae, the cashew family) is a common woody vine, native to the United States and Canada from Nova Scotia to Florida, west to Michigan and Texas. It is also found in Central America as far south as Guatemala. It is all but ubiquitous in natural areas in the Mid-Atlantic United States. It has been recorded in over 70 wooded parks and other natural areas in New York City.

Leaflets of three? Let if be. Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). photo credit: wikimedia commons

Leaflets of three? Let if be. Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Poison ivy does have certain drawbacks for many people who are allergic to its oily sap. The toxins in poison ivy sap are called urushiols, chemicals containing a benzene ring with two hydroxyl groups (catechol) and an alkyl group of various sorts (CnHn+1).

These chemicals can cause itching and blistering of skin but they are made by the plant to protect it from being eaten by insects and vertebrate herbivores such as rabbits and deer.

Poison ivy is recognized in summer by its alternate leaves with three, shiny leaflets and by the hairy-looking aerial roots growing along its stems. In autumn the leaves rival those of sugar maple for red and orange colors. Winter leaf buds are narrow and pointed, without scales (naked). It forms extensive colonies from underground stems and can cover large areas of the forest floor with an understory of vertical stems, especially in disturbed woodlands and edges. However, It generally only blooms and sets fruit when it finds a tree to climb. When a poison ivy stem encounters a tree trunk, or other vertical surface, it clings tightly with its aerial roots and climbs upward, reaching for the light (unlike several notorious exotic vines, it does not twine around or strangle trees). Once it has found enough light, it sends out long, horizontal branches that produce flowers and fruit.

Flowers of poison ivy are small and greenish-white, not often noticed, except by the honeybees and native bees which visit them for nectar and exchange pollen among the flowers. Honey made from poison ivy nectar is not toxic. Fruits of poison ivy are small, gray-white, waxy-coated berries that can remain on the vine well into winter. They are eaten by woodpeckers, yellow-rumped warblers, and other birds. Crows use poison ivy berries as crop grist (instead of, or along with, small stones) and are major dispersers of the seeds.

The fruits of poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) - photo credit: Daniel Murphy

The fruits of poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) – photo credit: Daniel Murphy

It is as a ground cover that poison ivy performs its most vital functions in urban and suburban woodlands. It can grow in almost any soil from dry, sterile, black dune sand, to swamp forest edges, to concrete rubble in fill soils, and along highways. It enjoys full sun but can grow just fine in closed canopy woodlands. It is an ideal ground cover, holding soil in place on the steepest slopes, while collecting and holding leaf litter and sticks that decay to form rich humus. It captures rain, causing the water to sink into the ground, slowing runoff, renewing groundwater, filtering out pollutants, and helping to prevent flooding.

Poison ivy is usually found with many other plants growing up through it – larger herbs, shrubs, and tree seedlings that also live in the forest understory. It seems to “get along” with other plants, unlike Japanese honeysuckle or Asian bittersweet, which crowd out or smother other plants. Poison ivy is also important as shelter for birds and many invertebrates.

While those who are severely allergic to poison ivy have reason to dislike and avoid it, Toxicodendron radicans has an important place in our natural areas. No one would advocate letting it grow in playgrounds, picnic areas, or along heavily used trail margins, but it belongs in our woods and fields and should be treated with respect, not hatred. Recognize it but don’t root it out.


Further Reading: Uva, R. H., J.C. Neal and J. M. DiTomaso. 1997. Weeds of the Northeast. Comstock Publishing. Ithaca, NY.

This piece was originally published in the New York City Dept. of Parks & Recreation, Daily Plant.

Alien Plant Invasions and the Extinction Trajectory

One of the concerns about introduced species becoming invasive is that they threaten to reduce the biodiversity of the ecosystems they have invaded. They do this by spreading rampantly, using up resources and space, altering ecosystem functions, and ultimately pushing other species out. In the case of certain invasive animals, species may be eliminated via predation; but plants don’t eat each other (generally), so if one plant species is to snuff out another plant species it must use other means. Presently, we have no evidence that a native plant species has been rendered extinct solely as a result of an invasive plant species. That does not mean, however, that invasive plants are not doing harm.

In a paper published in AoB Plants in August 2016, Paul O. Downey and David M. Richardson argue that, when it comes to plants, focusing our attention on extinctions masks the real impact that invasive species can have. In general, plants go extinct more slowly than animals, and it is difficult to determine that a plant species has truly gone extinct. Some plants are very long-lived, so the march towards extinction can extend across centuries. But the real challenge – after determining that there are no above-ground signs of life – is determining that no viable seeds remain in the soil (i.e. seed bank). Depending on the species, seeds can remain viable for dozens (even hundreds) of years, so when conditions are right, a species thought to be extinct can emerge once again. (Consider the story of the Kankakee mallow.)

On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that invasive plant species have had significant impacts on certain native plant populations and have placed such species on, what Downey and Richardson call, an extinction trajectory. It is this trajectory that deserves our attention if our goal is to save native plant species from extinction. As described in the paper, the extinction trajectory has six steps – or thresholds – which are defined in the infographic below:


Downey and Richardson spend a portion of the paper summarizing research that demonstrates how invasive plants have driven native plants into thresholds 1-3, thereby placing them on an extinction trajectory. In New Zealand, Lantana camara (introduced from the American tropics) creates dense thickets, outcompeting native plants. Researchers found that species richness of native plants declined once L. camara achieved 75% cover in the test sites. In the U.S., researchers found reduced seed set in three native perennial herbs as a result of sharing space with Lonicera mackii (introduced from Asia), suggesting that the alien species is likely to have a negative impact on the long-term survivability of these native plants. Citing such research, Downy and Richardson conclude that “it is the direction of change that is fundamentally important – the extinction trajectory and the thresholds that have been breached – not whether a native plant species has actually been documented as going extinct due to an alien plant species based on a snapshot view.”

Introduced to New Zealand from the American tropics, largeleaf lantana (Lantana camara) forms dense thickets that can outcompete native plant species. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Introduced to New Zealand from the American tropics, largeleaf lantana (Lantana camara) forms dense thickets that can outcompete native plant species. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

In support of their argument, they also address problems with the way some research is done (“in many instances appropriate data are not collected over sufficiently long periods,” etc.), and they highlight the dearth of data and research (“impacts associated with most invasive alien plants have not been studied or are poorly understood or documented”). With those things in mind, they make recommendations for improving research and they encourage long-term studies and collaboration in order to address the current “lack of meta analyses or global datasets.” A similar recommendation was made in American Journal of Botany in June 2015.

The language in this report makes it clear that the authors are responding to a certain group of people that have questioned whether or not the threat of invasive plants has been overstated and if the measures we are taking to control invasive plants are justified. The following cartoon that appeared along with a summary of the article way oversimplifies the debate:


Boy: There are no studies that show weeds cause native plants to go extinct, thus we should not control them. Plant: If we wait until then, we’ll all be gone!!! Girl: Just because no one has demonstrated it does not mean that extinctions do not occur. The problem is not overstated!

It seems to me that a big part of why we have not linked an invasive plant species to a native plant species extinction (apart from the difficulty of determining with certainty that a plant has gone extinct) is that extinctions are often the result of a number of factors. The authors do eventually say that: “it is rare that one threatening process in isolation leads to the extinction of a species.” So, as much as it is important to fully understand the impacts that invasive plant species are having, it is also important to look at the larger picture. What else is going on that may be contributing to population declines?

Observing invaded plant populations over a long period seems like our best bet in determining the real effects that invasive species are having. In some cases, as Downey and Richardson admit, “decreased effects over time” have been documented, and so “the effects [of invasive species] are dynamic, not static.” And speaking of things that are dynamic, extinction is a dynamic process and one that we generally consider to be wholly negative. But why? What if that isn’t always the case? Extinctions have been a part of life on earth as long as life has been around. Is there anything “good” that can come out of them?

Introducing Invasive Species

The terms “invasive” or “invasive species” get thrown around a lot. They are frequently used to describe anything that is “misbehaving,” or acting in a way that doesn’t fit our idealized vision for how a landscape should look and function. Oftentimes a species that is introduced (by humans) or is not native to an area automatically gets labeled invasive, even if it isn’t acting aggressively or having any sort of dramatic impact on the ecosystem. It is an alien species in an alien environment; it has invaded, therefore it is invasive.

image credit: cartoon movement

image credit: cartoon movement

Determining what is actually invasive in what location and at what time is much more complex than that. We do our best to understand the natural features and functions of ecosystems, and we single out any species, whether introduced or not, that is acting to upset things. That species is considered invasive and, if the goal is to restore the natural balance, it must be controlled. To what degree a species should be controlled depends on the degree that it is upsetting things. Ultimately, it comes down to human judgement. Hopefully that judgement is based on the best available evidence, but that isn’t always the case.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. What I mostly want to accomplish with this post is to introduce the concept of invasive species and point you to a selection of resources to learn more about them. I defined invasive species in a post I wrote back in August 2015, so I will repeat myself here:

“Invasive species” is often used inappropriately to refer to any species that is found outside of its historic native range (i.e. the area in which it evolved to its present form). More appropriate terms for such species are “introduced,” “alien,” “exotic,” “non-native,” and “non-indigenous.” The legal definition of an invasive species (according to the US government) is “an alien species that does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.” Even though this definition specifically refers to “alien species,” it is possible for native species to behave invasively.

These terms refer not just to plants but to all living organisms. The term “noxious weed,” on the other hand, is specific to plants. A noxious weed is a plant species that has been designated by a Federal, State, or county government as “injurious to public health, agriculture, recreation, wildlife, or property.” A “weed” is simply a plant that, from a human perspective, is growing in the wrong place, and any plant at any point could be determined to be a weed if a human says so.

Invasive species are easily one of the most popular ecological and environmental topics, and resources about them abound – some more credible than others. Here is a list of places to start:

That should get you started. There are, of course, numerous books on the subject, as well as a number of peer-reviewed journals dedicated to biological invasions. You should also be aware that IUCN maintains a list of the Top 100 World’s Worst Invasive Species and that there is a National Invasive Species Awareness Week, which is quickly approaching. This episode of Native Plant Podcast with Jamie Reaser (executive director of National Invasive Species Council) offers an informative discussion about invasive species, and a search for “invasive species” on You Tube brings up dozens of results including this brief, animated video:


I want to believe that we are doing the right thing when we make concerted efforts to remove invasive species and restore natural areas, but I’m skeptical. The reason why I have chosen to spend an indefinite amount of time exploring the topic of invasive species is because I truly want us to get it right. Yet I don’t even know that there is a “right.” It seems to me that there are endless trajectories – each one of them addressing different objectives and producing different outcomes. In a way we are playing God, regardless of which approach we take. We are making decisions for nature as if we know what’s best for it or that there even is a “best.”

Humans have had major impacts on virtually every square inch of the planet and have been placing our fingerprints on every ecosystem we touch since long before we became the humans we are today, and so it is difficult for me to envision a planet sans humans. It is also difficult for me to buy into the idea that our planet should look as though humans haven’t touched it (i.e. pristine). Because we have been touching it – for hundreds of thousands of years. Efforts to rewind time to before introductions occurred or to hold an ecosystem in stasis, securing life for only those species that “belong” there, seem noble yet fanciful at best and misguided, arrogant, and fruitless at worst.

To be the best conservationists we can be, we probably need to find a middle ground regarding invasive species – not a deter and eliminate at all costs approach, but also not a complete surrender/all are welcome and all can stay stance. Somewhere in between seems reasonable, acknowledging that the strategy taken will be different every time based on the location, the species in question, and our objectives. Of course, none of my beliefs or opinions on this topic (or any topic for that matter) are fully formed. I am trying to do my best to maintain an open mind, seeking out the best information available and following the evidence where it takes me. A topic as complex as invasion biology, however, is never going to be easy to finalize one’s opinions on, and so this journey will be boundless. I hope you will join me.


Last but not least, here are two articles that discuss updating our approach to dealing with invasive species:


What Is a Plant, and Why Should I Care? part four

What Is a Plant?

Part one and two of this series have hopefully answered that.

Why should you care?

Part three offered a pretty convincing answer: “if it wasn’t for [plants], there wouldn’t be much life on this planet to speak of.”

Plants are at the bottom of the food chain and are a principle component of most habitats. They play major roles in nutrient cycling, soil formation, the water cycle, air and water quality, and climate and weather patterns. The examples used in part three of this series to explain the diverse ways that plants provide habitat and food for other organisms apply to humans as well. However, humans have found numerous other uses for plants that are mostly unique to our species – some of which will be discussed here.

But first, some additional thoughts on photosynthesis. Plants photosynthesize thanks to the work accomplished by very early photoautotrophic bacteria that were confined to aquatic environments. These bacteria developed the metabolic processes and cellular components that were later co-opted (via symbiogensis) by early plants. Plants later colonized land, bringing with them the phenomena of photosynthesis and transforming life on earth as we know it. Single-celled organisms started this whole thing, and they continue to rule. That’s just something to keep in mind, since our focus tends to be on large, multi-cellular beings, overlooking all the tiny, less visible beings at work all around us making life possible.

Current representation of the tree of life. Microorganisms clearly dominate. (image credit: nature microbiology)

Current representation of the tree of life. Microorganisms clearly dominate. (image credit: nature microbiology)

Food is likely the first thing that comes to mind when considering what use plants are to humans. The domestication of plants and the development of agriculture are easily among the most important events in human history. Agricultural innovations continue today and are necessary in order to both feed a growing population and reduce our environmental impact. This is why efforts to discover and conserve crop wild relatives are so essential.

Plants don’t just feed us though. They house us, clothe us, medicate us, transport us, supply us, teach us, inspire us, and entertain us. Enumerating the untold ways that plants factor in to our daily lives is a monumental task. Rather than tackling that task here, I’ll suggest a few starting points: this Wikipedia page, this BGCI article, this Encylopedia of Life article, and this book by Anna Lewington. Learning about the countless uses humans have found for plants over millennia should inspire admiration for these green organisms. If that admiration leads to conservation, all the better. After all, if the plants go, so do we.

Humans have a long tradition of using plants as medicine. Despite all that we have discovered regarding the medicinal properties of plants, there remains much to be discovered. This one of the many reasons why plant conservation is so important. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Humans have a long tradition of using plants as medicine. Despite all that we have discovered regarding the medicinal properties of plants, there remains much to be discovered. This is one of the many reasons why plant conservation is imperative. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Gaining an appreciation for the things that plants do for us is increasingly important as our species becomes more urban. Our dense populations tend to push plants and other organisms out, yet we still rely on their “services” for survival. Many of the functions that plants serve out in the wild can be beneficial when incorporated into urban environments. Plants improve air quality, reduce noise pollution, mitigate urban heat islands, help manage storm water runoff, create habitat for urban wildlife, act as a windbreak, reduce soil erosion, and help save energy spent on cooling and heating. Taking advantage of these “ecosystem services” can help our cities become more liveable and sustainable. As the environmental, social, and economic benefits of “urban greening” are better understood, groups like San Francisco’s Friends of the Urban Forest are convening to help cities across the world go green.

The importance of plants as food, medicine, fuel, fiber, housing, habitat, and other resources is clear. Less obvious is the importance of plants in our psychological well being. Numerous studies have demonstrated that simply having plants nearby can offer benefits to one’s mental and physical health. Yet, urbanization and advancements in technology have resulted in humans spending more and more time indoors and living largely sedentary lives. Because of this shift, author Richard Louv and others warn about nature deficit disorder, a term not recognized as an actual condition by the medical community but meant to describe our disconnect with the natural world. A recent article in BBC News adds “nature knowledge deficit” to these warnings – collectively our knowledge about nature is slipping away because we don’t spend enough time in it.

The mounting evidence for the benefits of having nature nearby should be enough for us to want to protect it. However, recognizing that we are a part of that nature rather than apart from it should also be emphasized. The process that plants went through over hundreds of millions of years to move from water to land and then to become what they are today is parallel with the process that we went through. At no point in time did we become separate from this process. We are as natural as the plants. We may need them a bit more than they need us, but we are all part of a bigger picture. Perhaps coming to grips with this reality can help us develop greater compassion for ourselves as well as for the living world around us.

Tomato vs. Dodder, or When Parasitic Plants Attack

At all points in their lives, plants are faced with a variety of potential attackers. Pathogenic organisms like fungi, bacteria, and viruses threaten to infect them with diseases. Herbivores from all walks of life swoop in to devour them. For this reason, plants have developed numerous mechanisms to defend themselves against threats both organismal and environmental. But what if the attacker is a fellow plant? Plants parasitizing other plants? It sounds egregious, but it’s a real thing. And since it’s been going on for thousands of years, certain plants have developed defenses against even this particular threat.

Species of parasitic plants number in the thousands, spanning more than 20 different plant families. One well known group of parasitic plants is in the genus Cuscuta, commonly known as dodder. There are about 200 species of dodder located throughout the world, with the largest concentrations found in tropical and subtropical areas. Dodders generally have thread-like, yellow to orange, leafless stems. They are almost entirely non-photosynthetic and rely on their host plants for water and nutrients. Their tiny seeds can lie dormant in the soil for a decade or more. After germination, dodders have only a few days to find host plants to wrap themselves around, after which their rudimentary roots wither up. Once they find suitable plants, dodders form adventitious roots with haustoria that grow into the stems of their host plants and facilitate uptake of water and nutrients from their vascular tissues.

A mass of dodder (Cuscuta sp.) - photo credit: wikimedia commons

A mass of dodder (Cuscuta sp.) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Some plants are able to fend off dodder. One such instance is the cultivated tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) and its resistance to the dodder species, Cuscuta reflexa. Researchers in Germany were able to determine one of the mechanisms tomato plants use to deter dodder; their findings were published in a July 2016 issue of Science. The researchers hypothesized that S. lycopersicum was employing a similar tactic to that of a microbial invasion. That is, an immune response is triggered when a specialized protein known as a pattern recognition receptor (PRP) reacts with a molecule produced by the invader known as a microbe-associated molecular pattern (MAMP). A series of experiments led the researchers to determine that this was, in fact, the case.

The MAMP was given the name Cuscuta factor and was found “present in all parts of C. reflexa, including shoot tips, stems, haustoria, and, at lower levels, in flowers.” The PRP in the tomato plant, which was given the name Cuscuta receptor 1 (or CuRe 1), reacts with the Cuscuta factor, triggering a response that prohibits C. reflexa access to its vascular tissues. Starved for nutrients, the dodder perishes. When the gene that codes for CuRe 1 was inserted into the DNA of Solanum pennellii (a wild relative of the cultivated tomato) and Nicotiana benthamiana (a relative of tobacco and a species in the same family as tomato), these plants “exhibited increased resistance to C. reflexa infestation.” Because these transgenic lines did not exhibit full resitance to the dodder attack, the researchers concluded that “immunity against C. reflexa in tomato may be a process with layers additional to CuRe 1.”

photo credit: wikimedia commons

photo credit: wikimedia commons

A slew of crop plants are vulnerable to dodder and other parasitic plants, so determining the mechanisms behind resistance to parasitic plant attacks is important, especially since such infestations are so difficult to control, have the potential to cause great economic damage, and are also a means by which pathogens are spread. It is possible that equivalents to CuRe 1 exist in other plants that exhibit resistance to parasitic plants, along with other yet to be discovered mechanisms involved in such resistance, so further studies are necessary. Discoveries like this not only help us make improvements to the plants we depend on for food, but also give us a greater understanding about plant physiology, evolutionary ecology, and the remarkable ways that plants associate with one another.

Additional Resources:

Bat Pollinated Flowers of a Mexican Columnar Cactus

Pollination syndromes – suites of floral traits used to determine potential pollinators and routes of pollination – have been informative in studying plant-pollinator interactions, but are generally too simplistic to tell the full story. Most flowering plants are generalists when it comes to pollinators, whereas pollination syndromes imply specialization. Not all pollinators are created equal though, and some may be more effective at pollinating particular plants than others. In fact, occasionally pollination syndromes ring true and a predicted plant-pollinator combination turns out to be the most effective and reliable interaction.

According to a study published in American Journal of Botany by Ibarra-Cerdeña, et al., Stenocereus queretaroensis, a species of columnar cactus endemic to western Mexico, adheres to this scenario. Stenocereus is a genus in a group of columnar and tree-like cacti called the Pachycereeae tribe. Cactus in this group are generally bat pollinated; however, their flowers are typically visited by various species of birds and insects as well, and in some cases, bats are not the primary pollinator. In their introduction, the authors note that specialization appears to be more common in tropical latitudes, and chiropterophilic (bat pollinated) columnar cacti that occur in temperate regions can be comparatively more generalized. This is because “extratropical chiropterophilic cacti appear to be faced with unpredictable seasonal year-to-year variation in pollinators,” while “cacti in tropical regions” experience “highly reliable seasonal availability of nectar-feeding bats, thereby leading to a temporally stable pollination system.”

Stenocereus queretaroensis is a massive cactus, reaching up to ten meters tall. Several vertical stems rise from a short, stocky, central trunk. Each stem has up to eight distinctive ribs and averages around 15 centimeters in diameter. Groupings of white to grey spines up to four centimeters long appear along the ribs. Flowers are light-colored, around 10 to 14 centimeters in length, and occur along the upper half of the stems, extended well beyond the spines. Flowers open at night – producing abundant nectar – and close by the afternoon the following day. Floral characteristics led the authors of this study to predict bats to be the main pollinator, and they set up a series of experiments to test this.

Stenocereus queretaroensis - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Stenocereus queretaroensis – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Part of their experiment consisted of five treatments involving 130 flowers on 75 plants. One group of flowers was bagged and allowed to self-pollinate naturally, while another group was bagged and self-pollinated manually. A third group was left exposed during the night but bagged in the morning, while a fourth group was bagged during the night and exposed during the daytime. The final group was left alone. For each of these five treatments, aborted flowers and mature fruits were counted and seed set was determined. Nectar samples were taken from a separate group of flowers at two hour intervals from 8:00 PM to 8:00 AM, after which no nectar was produced. A camera was also used to document floral visits. Visits were deemed “legitimate” when the “visitor’s body came in contact with anthers and/or stigma” and “illegitimate” when “no contact with anthers or stigma” was made.

The researchers found S. queretaroensis to be “incapable of self-pollination,” as no fruit set occurred for the first two treatments. The control group and the nocturnally exposed group had nearly identical results, producing significantly more fruits with greater seed set compared to the nocturnally bagged group. During the day, flowers were visited by four species of birds (two hummingbirds, a woodpecker, and an oriole) and several species of bees (mainly honey bees). During the night, apart from illegitimate visits from a nectar robbing hawkmoth, one species of bat was the dominant floral visitor, and the majority (93.8%) of the visits were legitimate. This bat species was Leptonycteris curasoae, the southern long-nosed bat.

Leptonycteris curasoae - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Leptonycteris curasoae – photo credit: wikimedia commons

The abundance of nectar-feeding bats was monitored in the study area over a four year period, and L. curasoae was by far the most abundant species throughout the study period. Nectar produced in the flowers of S. queretaroensis was at its maximum around midnight, which seemed to correlate with observations of bat visits. Even though daytime visitors appeared to contribute to fruit and seed set, the nocturnal treatment produced significantly more fruit with significantly higher seed set, suggesting that bats are the more efficient pollinator. Insects visiting during the daytime, when nectar was decreasingly available, were most likely robbing pollen.

The authors acknowledge that for most plant species, “a wide array of taxonomically diverse fauna such as insects, birds, and mammals usually serve as potential pollinators,” and that “generalized pollination systems are more frequent than specialized ones.” However, in this case, “a close association between L. curasoae and S. queretaroensis [suggests] that the chiropterophilic syndrome is still a useful model.”

Related Posts:

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: