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Tortoise eating vegetation
A recent study looked at the camouflage techniques that certain species of daisies adopt to avoid being eaten by herbivores such as tortoises © Boris Delahaie / British Ecological Society
DECODING SCIENCE POST with information supplied by British Ecological Society

According to a new study, certain species of daisies that close their flowers at night have been found to produce colour in their exposed lower petals that makes them harder to spot for herbivores, reducing herbivory rates of flowers.

In the study, which was published in the British Ecological Society journal Functional Ecology, researchers from Stellenbosch University in South Africa found that tortoises, one of the main herbivores of the daisies, were unable to distinguish the lower petal surfaces against a green leaf background. Tortoises prefer to eat protein-rich flowers over leaves, but when confronted with closed flowers, they showed no preference between them.

When the researchers modelled the colours of the lower petal surfaces in the vision of other herbivores, they also found these colours to be indistinguishable from leaves. In contrast, species of daisy that do not close at night produced the same colouration on their lower petals as the upper petals exposed to pollinators.

Closed and open cape dandelion (Arcotheca calendula )
Closed and open cape dandelion (Arctotheca calendula) © Jurene Kemp / British Ecological Society

Plants face an evolutionary conflict between having flowers that attract pollinators while avoiding herbivores. Often plants defend themselves chemically, but this can have adverse effects on pollination.

“When plants defend their flowers chemically, the pollination interactions can be negatively influenced. Our study shows a novel way in which flowers can avoid herbivores, without compromising pollination interactions.” Says Dr. Jurene Kemp, lead author of the study.

“These flowers can potentially circumvent the conflict of attracting both pollinators and herbivores by producing attractive colours on the surfaces that are exposed to pollinators (when flowers are open) and cryptic colours that are exposed when herbivores are active (when flowers are closed).”

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Beetle daisy (Gorteria diffusa)
The vibrant orange Beetle daisy (Gorteria diffusa) © Jurene Kemp / British Ecological Society

In Namaqualand, South Africa, where the research took place, daises bloom annually in a spring flowering. This makes preserving flowers, responsible for reproduction, particularly important.

The researchers examined the colouration of 77 Asteraceae species, modelling how they appear in the visual systems of chameleons, horses and goats as proxies for tortoises and larger herbivores in the area, like springbok. They then tested the preferences of real tortoises with both open and closed flowers against leaf backgrounds.

Beetle daisy (Gorteria diffusa)
The dark lower petals of the Beetle daisy (Gorteria diffusa) © Jurene Kemp / British Ecological Society

Not all Asteraceae species that close their flowers had cryptically coloured lower petal surfaces, but in the experiments, the tortoises did not readily eat these flowers. Dr. Kemp said, “One interesting question would be to test whether non-cryptic flowers have chemical defences, and whether these chemical defences are absent in the cryptic flowers.”

On further research Dr. Kemp said “Unfortunately, we could only do this using one plant family in one botanical region, it would be great to see if other plant species also use colour to avoid herbivores.”

The researchers would also have liked to use larger herbivores such as springboks in their behavioural experiments, but Dr. Kemp adds that “this was practically not possible.”

Full report: Jurene E. Kemp; Allan G. Ellis (2019). Cryptic petal coloration decreases floral apparency and herbivory in nocturnally closing daisies. Functional Ecology. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2435.13423

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