9 surprising pollinator species that aren't bees
By Jaymi Heimbuch, Mother Nature Network, 20 May 2016.
By Jaymi Heimbuch, Mother Nature Network, 20 May 2016.
Pollination isn't only the territory of bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. In fact, a surprising number of animals play a role in the survival of flowering plants. We're taking a closer look at animals around the world that spread pollen in their search for sweet nectar treats.
1. Black-and-white ruffed lemur
The largest pollinator is the black-and-white ruffed lemur. Yep, lemurs are pollinators! This lemur is the primary pollinator of the traveller's palm, or traveller's tree, which has large flowers. When ruffed lemurs reach into the flower to snack on the nectar, they get pollen all over their snouts. This is distributed to the next flower they visit.
The fact that the flowers are surrounded by sturdy leaves that take some strength and dexterity to open, and that they produce enough nectar to satisfy an animal as big as a lemur, hints to researchers that this palm may have evolved specifically to be pollinated by larger mammals, rather than insects or birds.
Lemurs aren't the only mammals that pollinate plants. Check out an adorably tiny and furry pollinator next.
2. Honey possum
Photo: YouKeepUsTraveling/YouTube Screenshot
Pollination by vertebrates is called zoophily. While species like hummingbirds and nectar-drinking bats get most of the credit for pollination in this department, there are a few other species that also take part, including the humble honey possum.
This species pollinates Australia's banksia and eucalyptus flowers. This minuscule marsupial grows to only about 2.6 to 3.5 inches long, and is about half the weight of a mouse. It's one of the few entirely nectarivorous mammals in the world - meaning it feeds primarily on nectar to survive - so it is specially adapted to assist with pollination.
Aside from its extra long tongue, which helps it reach nectar, the honey possum also has a prehensile tail so it can hang from branches as it searches for flowers. While drinking nectar, its long pointed snout becomes covered in pollen that the animal distributes to other flowers as it feeds.
While fur helps animals collect and distribute pollen, our next pollinator proves you don't have to have hair to be effective.
Photo: Jjargoud/Wikimedia Commons
Lizards, geckos and skinks may be unexpected pollinators, but they are highly important. For example, the Noronha skink pollinates the mulungu tree in Brazil.
Meanwhile, on the island of Mauritius, the blue-tailed day gecko [pictured above] is the primary pollinator of the rare Trochetia flower. "Researchers say the flower's survival now largely depends on visits from the 5-inch-long gecko," reports National Geographic.
These little reptiles have a big job as important assistants in the survival of flowering plants!
4. Rainbow lorikeet
Many birds are important pollinators, but few people would suspect that a small parrot is one of them!
The rainbow lorikeet [pictured above], native to Australia and Indonesia, is as colourful as the flowers it visits. The species is particularly adapted to feed on nectar and pollen, including having a tongue with tiny hair-like structures called papilla that assist in gathering up as much nectar from a flower as possible. The pollen that brushes against the bird's forehead and throat is spread to other flowers as it feeds.
The rainbow lorikeet isn't the only parrot species to act as a pollinator. "The swift parrot depends on flowers from the Tasmanian blue gem tree - migrating hundreds of miles across Australia to breed around the trees in Tasmania," reports the BBC. "The colourful birds have evolved to become specialist nectar and pollen feeders and are thought to be more effective pollinators than insects at these trees, transferring large amount of pollen on their head feathers and bills."
5. Large-spotted genet
Photo: Bernard DUPONT/Wikimedia Commons
Even meat-eating animals can be pollinators, such as the large-spotted genet. Researchers from the from the University of Cape Town in South Africa caught both genets and the carnivorous Cape grey mongoose visiting nectar-producing flowers for a sweet midnight treat, and a 2015 study reported that these surprising species both contribute to the pollination of the plants they dine on.
Because they are infrequent visitors to flowering plants, they don't play a particularly large role as pollinators. But the researchers suggest that because they travel long distances, they may help disperse pollen farther away.
“Their home ranges are much larger than those of rodents, the more common visitors to these plants. So, although their visits may be infrequent, they may play a small important part in out-crossing plants far away from each other,” Sandy-Lynn Steenhuisen of the University of Cape Town tells New Scientist.
Ants are known for many things, but their role in pollination is probably far down the list. However, when you consider how often ants invade kitchens in search of sugary treats, it then is no surprise that they also invade flowering plants in search of sweet nectar. In return for the snack, they help plant reproduction.
The plants that usually benefit from ants as pollinators are species that grow low to the ground and have inconspicuous flowers that grow close to the stem. However, there are some flower species that ants visit where the insects actually cause harm to the pollen.
From the USDA Forest Service:
"Researchers have discovered that some ants are not important pollinators, even though they visit flowers and may have pollen grains attach to their bodies. These scientists discovered that some ants and their larvae secrete a natural substance that acts as an antibiotic. This secretion protects ants from bacterial and fungal infections. Unfortunately for the flowers which are visited by these ants, this secretion also kills a pollen grain very rapidly when it comes in contact with this natural antibiotic."
Sometimes ants are helpful, and sometimes they play a much more complex role for flowering plants. There is still much to learn about how ants influence pollination.
7. Flying foxes
Photo: Andrew Mercer/Wikimedia Commons
Bats are important pollinators, but many people don't appreciate the amazing array of species that pollinate plants around the world - nor how amazingly adapted they are for their job.
For instance, the tube-lipped nectar bat (Anoura fistulata) of Ecuador has the longest tongue relative to body size of any mammal in the world, and the adaptation helps it reach nectar deep inside tube-shaped flowers.
"A. fistulata is only the size of a mouse, but its tongue is around 8.5 centimetres long, making it up to 150% of its body length! With such a long tongue it couldn’t possibly keep all of it in its mouth. Instead, A. fistulata keeps the tongue in its chest, in a cavity between the heart and sternum," reports the National Wildlife Federation.
Bats as large as flying foxes, such as the one pictured above, are key for pollination of plants such as eucalyptus, and they are the only known pollinator of some species of rain forest plants. In fact, bats are so important that some plants have evolved to be pollinated exclusively by bats. One example is agave, the plant from which we get sweeteners, fibres and tequila. Its flowers open only at night and smell like rotting fruit to attract bats.
Photo: Emilian Robert Vicol/Wikimedia Commons
Bees and butterflies, sure...but beetles as pollinators? Yep! And that's a big, big yep.
"Beetles comprise the largest set of pollinating animals, due to sheer numbers. They are responsible for pollinating 88% of the 240,000 flowering plants globally," reports the USDA Forest Service.
Beetles have been pollinators for millions of years. In fact, it's thought that they were among the first insects to visit flowering plants as far back as 200 million years ago. And today's beetles still love flowering plants with close ties to ancient species, such as magnolias and water lilies.
Plants that are dependent on beetles for pollination are called cantharophilous plants.
9. Sunbirds, honey eaters and more
Photo: Steve Garvie/Wikimedia Commons
Hummingbirds get a lot of credit for pollinating plants in the Americas. But around the world, species like sunbirds [pictured above, a malachite sunbird], honeyeaters and honey creepers deserve an equal amount of respect as key pollinators of hundreds of species of plant.
There are an estimated 2,000 species of birds around the globe that rely on nectar or the insects and spiders found on nectar-bearing plants. Indeed, birds have a long history of pollination. A 47-million-year-old fossil found in Germany of a tiny bird with bits of insects and hundreds of grains of pollen in its stomach is the oldest example of bird pollination so far uncovered.
While crops like banana, papaya and nutmeg are reliant on birds for pollination, birds are mainly responsible for helping to pollinate wildflowers. But that doesn't mean they're unimportant to us.
“While we may not eat the wildflowers birds pollinate, those plants are important for the health of the global ecosystem as a whole,” Dr. Eugenie Regan, senior principle consultant at The Biodiversity Consultancy, a U.K.-based environmental risk-assessment firm, points out to Audubon.
Without pollinators - from beetles to bats, from lemurs to lorikeets, from geckos to genets, from honey possums to honeycreepers - there isn't much on this planet that could survive. Including us humans. If you want to learn more about how to support pollinators around the world, check out Pollinator Partnership.
Top image: Scarlet honeyeater. Credit: magee/Pixabay.
[Source: Mother Nature Network. Edited. Some images and links added.]