Plants pollinated by nectar-drinking bats often have flowers that reflect ultrasonic waves, making it easier for the animals to locate flowers through echolocation. But one cactus does the opposite—it absorbs more ultrasound in the area surrounding its flowers, making them stand out against a “quieter” background, according to a preprint published on bioRxiv last month.
Espostoa frutescens is a type of column-shaped cactus found only in the Ecuadorian Andes mountains. It has small flowers on its side that open at night, attracting bats as they fly from flower to flower in search of nectar. One of its main pollinators is Geoffroy’s tailless bat (Anoura geoffroyi).
“Bats are really good pollinators,” Ralph Simon, a postdoc in Wouter Halfwerk’s lab at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and the lead author of the preprint, tells The Scientist. “They carry a lot of pollen in their fur, and they have a huge home range so they can transport pollen from plants that grow far apart. For plants with a patchy distribution pattern like this cactus, it’s especially beneficial to rely on bats for pollination,” he says.
For bats to find the flowers at night, they use echolocation, emitting ultrasonic calls too high for humans to hear that bounce off objects and allow the bats to form a mental map of their surroundings. Some plants have evolved techniques that take advantage of this sonar system and allow bats to better detect flowers, such as making their petals more concave, forming a more reflective surface that can bounce more echolocation back to the bat. But E. frutescens takes a different approach.
A cactus has no sense of what it is to be a bat—it can’t see, smell, or echolocate—but here it is, sending a bat a message in a language that a bat can understand.—May Dixon, The University of Texas at Austin
Each of E. frutescens’s flowers are surrounded by an area of wooly hairs called the cephalium. Simon and colleagues knew from past measurements that the hairs were sound-absorbent, and were interested in seeing whether this part of the cactus could be involved in helping bats find the flowers. They attached a microphone and speaker to a device resembling the shape and size of a bat head in order to mimic a bat, and played prerecorded echolocation calls to the cacti and measured how much sound was reflected back to the bat replica.
The team found that the hairy cephalium absorbed ultrasound, and that the greatest absorption occurred above 90 kHz, in the range of the frequency of Geoffroy’s tailless bat’s echolocation call. The sound that bounced back to the microphone from the cephalium area was about 14 decibels quieter than the sound that bounced off the non-hairy part of the cacti.
It’s a “totally different mechanism” than the reflection method other cacti use, says Simon. “Instead of making the flowers conspicuous, it dampens the background. The background absorbs the ultrasound, and the flowers show up in [the middle of] this absorbent fur.”
This mechanism makes sense from a communication standpoint, writes May Dixon, a graduate student studying bat behavior in Mike Ryan’s lab at the University of Texas at Austin who was not involved with the study, in an email to The Scientist. “If you are trying to send a message, you have to think not only about the message itself but also the context. For example, if you are calling someone, you should be loud enough for them to hear, sure, but you should also call from a quiet place,” she says.
“There is something wonderful about the ways that plants have found to communicate with animals through evolution,” Dixon notes. “A cactus has no sense of what it is to be a bat—it can’t see, smell, or echolocate—but here it is, sending a bat a message in a language that a bat can understand.”
The cephalium appears to have originally evolved to protect flowers from environmental stressors such as UV rays, drying out, getting too cold, or being eaten, but “during evolution, it co-opted another function, and it functions as a sound absorbing structure as well,” says Simon. The evolution of this mechanism benefits both cactus and bat. “From the bat point of view, with this mechanism, they save time. And for them, it’s important to save time, because they have to visit several hundred flowers each night to get enough energy,” he says.
The current study did not look at whether sites on the plants with the highest sound absorption in the bats’ echolocation range “indeed resulted in the highest detection and visitation rates by bats,” says Jan Komdeur, an evolutionary ecologist at University of Groningen in the Netherlands who did not participate in the research, in an email to The Scientist. In the future, researchers could investigate how often real-life bats approach hairy versus experimentally manipulated hairless flowers, he suggests.
Jorge Schondube, an ecologist at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México who was not involved with the study, agrees that research on real-life bats is needed. “The pattern’s very clear, but now [researchers] need to show how the mechanism is actually changing the behavior of the bats,” he says.
Still, he’s impressed by the findings so far. “Nature is very creative. And by being creative, it allows the origin of completely new and unimaginable things. It’s really surprising that something like this can happen, and the paper shows it really, really beautifully. . . . What we’re seeing here is something that has not been seen before in terms of sound.”
Emily Makowski is an intern at The Scientist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.