Mimicking the mimickers

Researchers have used 3D printing and artificial flowers to find out exactly how a type of Dracula orchid deceives flies into pollinating it, by pretending to be a mushroom.

The shade-loving, tree-dwelling species, Dracula lafleurii, can be found in the cloud forests on the slopes of the Ecuadorian Andes. It often grows close to mushrooms, and resembles them in shape, colour and scent. This Dracula orchid is pollinated by small drosophilid flies normally associated with mushrooms – in mimicking the mushrooms, it is recruiting flies to help it to reproduce. The question is: is it the looks, or the smell?

Melinda Barnadas creating the prototypes for the artificial flowers used in the study. Temporary studio located deep in the Ecuadorean cloud forest at Reserva Los Cedros. Photograph: Melinda Barnadas.

Melinda Barnadas creating the prototypes for the artificial flowers used in the study. Temporary studio located deep in the Ecuadorean cloud forest at Reserva Los Cedros. Photograph: Melinda Barnadas.

Research published in New Phytologist shows how, by mimicking the mimickers, scientists have been able to untangle the visual and scent components of the Dracula orchid’s appeal to figure out what makes them so good at fooling flies into pollinating them. Using 3D printing to make realistic artificial flowers, which copied the real thing in colour and scent, Tobias Policha and colleagues experimentally separated the cues used by the Dracula orchid to lure in flies.

The researchers found that a particular feature of the Dracula orchid – its mushroom-like labellum – worked together with its mushroom-mimicking scent to attract flies by exploiting their visual and chemical preferences. In doing so, it ensures regular visits and pollination by the flies. Without mimicking the mimickers using their 3D printing technique, the researchers would not have been able to work out the secret of the Dracula orchid’s devious attraction.

This is the original draft of a press release published via the Wiley news room, and appears in edited form as a blog post on the New Phytologist Trust blog.

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