Monday, May 29, 2017

It takes a special kind of obsession to do fieldwork

I wrote a few weeks ago about the start of the field season. I have been back up to the field site a couple of times since then mostly for basic surveying and laying out the plots that will stay in place for the next few years.

This week things got serious, though. Our orchids of interest, Cypripedium arietinum (ram's head orchid, fr: Cypripède tête-de-bélier), are finally blooming! This year they're blooming rather later than usual, as I have informal records going back several years showing the orchid flowering by May 17th -- they didn't start this year until May 22nd.

Here's what these little beauties look like:

C. arietinum
These little guys are gorgeous up close, but actually not very showy (at least to the human eye) -- they are very small, generally somewhere between 10 and 25cm tall at the flower (around a handspan off the ground) and the labellum (white and purple-veined petal-looking portion of the flower) is only about 1-1.5cm tall from lip to point, around 1cm wide, and only 1-1.5cm from front to back -- similar in size to the tip of an index finger. Moreover, their sepals (the brownish-red petal-like things sticking up, or out to the sides) are brownish and earlier in flowering development they lean down over the labellum, disguising it from view from above. This position of the sepal over the labellum can be seen in a photo in one of my previous blog posts, here. These factors come together to make C. arietinum a subtle, hard-to-spot little orchid.

C. arietinum flower
One rather interesting aspect of orchid pollination biology is the production of pollinia. Basically, instead of presenting pollen in loose grains that are removed and delivered in small numbers by pollinators, orchids (and a few other plants, e.g. milkweeds) produce their pollen in two big sticky masses called pollinia (singular pollinium) -- a pollinator either leaves with a big blob of sticky pollen, or without any pollen at all. Similarly, a flower receives pollen in big sticky masses. There are a couple of advantages to this kind of system: paternal success per pollinator visit is improved, because if a flower gets an opportunity to sire seed (i.e. its pollinium is transported to another flower), it gets to sire a lot of seed all at once because there are enough pollen grains in the pollinium to fertilize most/all of the available ovules; maternal success per pollinator visit is also improved, for similar reasons to the above. Of course, there's a loss of genetic diversity in offspring, as under these conditions all seeds from the same flower are full-siblings (same paternal and maternal parent), whereas if pollen grains were carried individually or in small numbers many of the resulting seeds would be half-siblings (same maternal parent, but different male parents).

I actually took some photos that show the pollinia of C. arietinum, so let's take a look:

C. arietinum pollinium -- look at the top of the labellum, where we have a fleshy structure below the dorsal (top) sepal -- if you look closely, under that structure (which is composed of filaments and pistil, fused), we see a round yellow blob -- that's the pollinum!
So why would it be better to increase reproductive success per pollinator visit at the expense of genetic diversity of the offspring? Current thought is that it's related to the plant being deceptive (or rather, to the plant receiving very few floral visitors because it's deceptive). I've talked about floral deception before, but in a nutshell the flower lures pollinators in by signalling that it offers a reward (nectar), but once the pollinator arrives it discovers that it's been had, that there's no nectar reward at all. Being food deceptive allows a flower to reduce its investment of energy in pollinator attraction (it doesn't have to make nectar, which is costly), but being food deceptive also means that the flower gets a lot fewer visits, because the pollinators learn that this flower is a liar and not worth visiting.

It's a pretty liar, though, eh? C. arietinum looking into the labellum

Regardless of the delay in their flowering time this year, now that the orchids are blooming the intensive fieldwork starts. We set out several days this week to tag all of the flowering individuals (we're already up over 200 individual orchids), measure a suite of their characteristics, measure soil pH and moisture for each of them, take down canopy closure and other plot characteristics, and note the size of the flowering community around each individual. This is an enormous amount of work, as you might have guessed. And there are still at least 100 orchids left to go!

One of the best things about fieldwork, which I touched on briefly in my last post, is that making close observations out in the field can lead to new questions and new discoveries. For example, yesterday during my fieldwork I noticed something very odd and cool. It won't come as a complete surprise to my blog readers, as I have talked about mutations twice before. This time, no fasciation, but instead I found five two-flowered individuals in this species that generally only has one flower per stalk. Individuals producing more than one flower on the same stalk naturally have been documented in quite a few orchids, especially Cypripedium spp.; however, there are a number of possible reasons for the multiple flowers: stress-related growth malfunction? soil contamination growth malfunction? natural genetic mutation? natural morphological variation? When it comes right down to it, we don't currently know the cause.

Of these two-flowered individuals, there seemed to be two broad 'types'. The first is a two-flowered individual wherein the upper flower is right-side-up and the lower flower is upside-down. There were three of this type in one of our study plots. Here are some pictures:

C. arietinum two-flowered individual. The upper flower is on the right, and the lower on the left.
One visible consequence of the orientation of the second (lower) flower is that the bottoms of the labellums of the two flowers press together and result in some distortion of the shape of the labellum -- for all three of this type of two-flowered individual in the plot, the lower flower's labellum was compressed such that the point at the bottom (oriented upward in this flower) was folded back instead of deployed (flower on the left in the above photo), while the upper flower's labellum had its point deployed (flower on the left in the photo below).

C. arietinum two-flowered individual, from the other side -- the upper flower is on the left and the lower on the right
 As you may have guessed, the second type of two-flowered individual I saw yesterday during my fieldwork was on in which both the first and second flowers were oriented correctly.

C. arietinum 2-flowered individual with both flowers correctly oriented
Though there's no interference between the two flowers in their growth like with the two-flowered individual above, I did notice that this individual also had some weird sepals on the upper flower -- notably, the dorsal sepal is oddly tilted off to the side (you can't really see it in the photo below, for example), and on that side where the dorsal sepal is the lateral sepals are actually entirely missing, so it's short a pair of lateral sepals and the dorsal sepal is positioned oddly. Because of my low sample size (only two flowers), I have no idea if this weird sepal situation is related at all to the double flowers. The lower flower, though smaller than the upper, appears well-formed.

C. arietinum two-flowered individual showing the flowers up close
I am still mulling over what kind of work we might be able to do with these unusual individuals. We will be limited by our very low sample size, but I live in hope -- maybe there will be more that we haven't spotted yet, as there are quite a few plots left to go! In the meantime, they're a curiosity worth documenting. Maybe this natural history find will turn into an ecological one in future!

I suppose I've had a good ramble through the orchid patch now and will get back to the title of this post, which is ostensibly the main point here. These lovely pictures don't convey one aspect of the season: blackflies! It is peak blackfly season, so it's absolutely brutal out there. We are all wearing bug hats and tucking our pants into our socks, our shirts into our pants, binding our cuffs with rubber bands, wearing gloves, and just about bathing in DEET because the blackflies are ravenous and exceptionally numerous. It takes a special sort of obsession to put up with them for ten hours a day!

I shared this video last year, but it's particularly apropos at the moment. Here's some delightful Canadiana about blackflies, sung by Wade Hemsworth and the McGarrigle Sisters and with animation by the national film board:

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