Feb 17, 2016 | By Kira
You might have heard the expression “you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar,” but a new study has revealed, thanks to 3D printed flowers, that for a certain species of orchid the saying might actually be “you catch more flies by pretending to be a mushroom.” That is, researchers created 3D printed casts of a specific species of orchid, which they then used to investigate how it has evolved over time to attract pollinators and ensure its survival. The flower in question is the Dracula lafleurii, a shade-dwelling orchid species found in the Ecuadorian Andes that is known for mimicking neighbouring mushrooms in size, shape, color and even scent.
Researchers have long known that flowers use different olfactory and visual signals to communicate with pollinators—most flowers, for example, display bright colors and pleasing scents to attract the bumblebees that will spread their pollen.
But, as they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and not all pollinators are attracted to the same things. Unlike bees, the flies you’ll find in the cold, dark areas where the Dracula orchid grow are drawn to the dull colors and foul, or even putrid odors that emanate from rot and fungus. Thus, in order to deceive those flies into becoming a pollinator, the Dracula orchid evolved over time to adopt the same olfactory and visual components of nearby mushrooms. In short: flies think they’re landing on a tasty mushroom, and instead land on the flower, picking up its pollen at the same time.
Wanting to investigate this natural phenomenon further and “disentangle” which characteristics of the mushrooms were most effective at attracting flies, a team consisting of researchers and visual artists recreated the orchids using 3D printing technology.
Variations of the mushroom-mimicking Dracula orchid
They began by creating highly realistic 3D printed casts of the Dracula orchid, which were then color-matched and cast using scent-free surgical silicone. Afterwards, the scents of co-occurring mushrooms and related orchids were added and used in various field experiments. “By combining silicone flower parts with real floral organs, we created chimeras that identified the mushroom-like labellum [the ‘lip’ of the flower] as a source of volatile attraction,” they wrote.
The findings proved that the mushroom-like, ‘gilled’ labellum, combined with a showy, patterned calyx (the outermost part of the flower) worked together, exploiting the visual and chemosensory preferences of drosophilid flies, and effectively ‘tricking’ them into pollinating the orchid. The orchid's name, of course, is a reference to the infamous Count Dracula, who used similarly deceptive tricks to lure his prey.
Fleshy fungi, a.k.a potential mushroom models for mimicry. All photos via Bryn Dentinger, one of the research authors
The 3D printed flowers, the result of an intense collaboration between artists and scientists, enabled careful and precise manipulation of the various olfactory and visual components of the Dracual lafleurii, providing invaluable insight into how floral mimicry actually works. In future, the researchers believe that the same 3D printing techniques could be applied to other floral species or related biological research to better understand these fascinating natural phenomena.
The full research was published in the most recent issue of the academic journal New Phytologist. The authors are Tobias Policha, Aleah Davis, and Bitty A. Roy of the Institute of Ecology & Evolution at University of Oregon; Melinda Barnadas, Department of Visual Arts, University of California; Bryn T. M. Dentinger, Jordell Laboratory, Royal Botanic Gardens, Surrey, UK; and Robert A. Raguso from the Department of Neurology and Behavior at Cornell University.
Posted in 3D Printing Application
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