We put The natural history of pollination and mating in bird-pollinated Babiana (Iridaceae) live on the Annals of Botany site this week. It’s been covered in the press, notably by the BBC, Plant has evolved a specialist bird perch, and the CBC, Bird perch helps plants have better sex. We’ve put out a press release, Bird pollinated plant mixes it up when it comes to sex.
The photo made it an obvious choice for a press release, but the story behind it is what grabbed me. Sunbirds are the African equivalent of hummingbirds, but they aren’t exactly the same. Hummingbirds can feed on the wing, but sunbirds can’t, and that means that hummingbirds are less accessible to predators when they feed. The perch from these Babiana plants evolved, and were more attractive to sunbirds. Sunbirds improve the pollination of the flowers and so plants with perches reproduce better. It’s a good story, but this paper tests that idea by looking at what happens when the perch is removed and looking at variation of perches compared to the distribution of birds. The authors also show that this isn’t simply a tidy case of cooperation. There’s evidence of sunbirds damaging the flowers to steal nectar. It’s a fascinating example of evolution in action. It’s a paper that’s well worth reading, if you can get access.
Access to papers has been a hot topic recently, following Monbiot’s article against closed access in the Guardian. It’s a more complicated issue than I’d want to tackle, particularly with Annals of Botany being part-subscription and part open-access and AoB PLANTS being all Open-Access, but not all publishers are the same and I can point to two differences between AoB and some other publishers.
One is that along with AoB PLANTS being free, Annals of Botany has free access to papers a year after print publication. The September 2010 issue, with the special section on Genes in Evolution, is available for free now.
The other is that if we’re making an effort to tell the public about a paper it’s not right to then have it behind a paywall. The Annals of Botany was set up to promote botanical studies. If you want to get the public conversing about plant science you can’t lock them out of the research and hope they remember about in it a year’s time when it’s free. That’s why I’m happy that AoB has a policy that if we are pushing a paper we try to release it with free access. As an example, you you can read this paper for free from the Annals of Botany website.
Ah, the things a plant must do to get pollinated when there aren’t any hummingbirds around. There are South African species of Phygelius whose flowers bend down and back toward the main axis of the inflorescence so they can be reached by sunbirds perching there, but this inverts the flowers, and so to the positions of the anthers and stigma.