– Tristan Wang ’16

Mimicry in biology is the imitation of another’s appearance. Often times, butterflies, snakes and octopi copy other fellow creatures to hide their true identity from predators. In plants, mimicry is called crypsis and there is a reason why this term does not come up often in plant literature.

On April 24, Current Biology published an article (http://www.cell.com/current-biology/abstract/S0960-9822%2814%2900269-3) on Boquila trifoliolata, a climbing tree vine capable of mimicking the leaves of other plants. Native to Chile and Argentina, B. trifoliolata is not only able to copy the shape, color size and orientation of other trees supporting the vine, but also copy several plant species at once. In fact, one individual of B. trifoliolata is able to reflect the appearances of several different plant species if it happens to come across several different plants. Only when B. trifoliolata is by itself does it show its true colors.

Why go to such lengths to copy some other plant? After all, B. trifoliolata certainly commits itself to matching its counterpart, even down to the vein patterns and spiny tips of leaves. The study explored the herbivory-avoidance hypothesis as a possible explanation, taking note that leaves on unsupported vines were more at risk of being eaten than leaves of climbing plants, though the mystery still remains at large.

Another theory discusses the potential utility of mimicry of more toxic plants. Herbivores could be more deterred from eating B. trifoliolata if it appears poisonous or disgusting. Yet another theory is that the plant simply hides itself by interspersing its own leaves with the more abundant host foliage that herbivores might target. The plant may also get the benefit of not being the target of specialized herbivores that prefer the host plant.

Probably an even more interesting question to ask is how the plant knows what it is near and how it so effectively mimics. The vine does not need to come into contact with the host plant in order to copy it, it just needs to be near it. The researchers discuss the possibility that the plant may sense gaseous volatile compounds specific to the host plant or even that there is horizontal gene transfer taking place. Either way, it is obvious that plants will do absolutely anything—even downright deceit—to get ahead in the game of life.

References:

“Fantastic and Plastic Mimicry in a Tropical Vine.” Why Evolution Is True

https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2014/04/26/fantastic-and-plastic-mimicry-in-a-tropical-vine/

“Master of Mimicry: Newly Discovered Vine Imitates Leaves of Any Tree.” Guardian Liberty Voice.

http://guardianlv.com/2014/04/master-of-mimicry-newly-discovered-vine-imitates-leaves-of-any-tree/

http://www.cell.com/current-biology/abstract/S0960-9822%2814%2900269-3

Image source: floradechile.cl and Think Inc.

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