Using a 3D printer, scientists have unlocked the mystery of how plants called Dracula orchids use mimicry to attract flies and ensure their survival.
The research, done in the last unlogged watershed in western Ecuador, is a win in the field of evolutionary biology and helps provide information that should benefit conservation efforts. The approach could also be applicable to studies of other plant-pollinator systems, researchers say.
“Mimicry is one of the best examples of natural selection that we have,” says Barbara “Bitty” Roy, a biologist at the University of Oregon. “How mimicry evolves is a big question in evolutionary biology. In this case, there are about 150 species of these orchids. How are they pollinated? What sorts of connections are there? It’s a case where these orchids plug into an entire endangered system.”
Dracula orchids grow in Central America and northwest reaches of the Andes Mountains in South America. The Dracula label literally means “little dragon” because of a face-like feature in the flowers. Some observers say they see Count Dracula as a bat that appears in vampire depictions in literature and the movies.
“Dracula orchids look and smell like mushrooms,” says Tobias Policha, an adjunct instructor and plant scientist in the Institute of Ecology and Evolution and lead author of the study that is published online in the journal New Phytologist. “We wanted to understand what it is about the flowers that is attractive to these mushroom-visiting flies.”
Continue reading to learn how the researchers used “chimera” orchids to discover how these orchids lure in the flies…