Ducky orchids and insects

When I first saw these pictures I was startled, for the resemblance of this Australian orchid (Caleana major) to a flying duck is amazing.

Picture 1

In fact its common names are the “flying duck orchid” and the “big duck orchid”.

Kuriositas has the botanical details:

The duck orchid is a perennial but blooms in late spring or early summer.  At up to 45 centimeters in height you might think it would stand out in its natural habitat.  However, because of the reddy-brown colors of both the stem and flowers it moulds in to its Australian environs so expertly that it becomes almost invisible – unless you are deliberately seeking out its company.

Image Credit Flickr User Davidfntau: http://www.flickr.com/photos/96936558@N00/4208765488/

Image Credit Flickr User Davidfntau: http://www.flickr.com/photos/96936558@N00/4208765488/

I was tempted to write that this orchid is pollinated by male ducks, who try to copulate with the flowers and thereby affix pollen to their heads (this is in fact true for insects pollinating the wasp and bee orchids), but I knew at least one reader would be taken in. But the facts are just as striking:

The ‘upside-down’ flower is reddish-brown, 15-20 mm long. The labellum or tongue, at the top, is a deep red and attached to the rest of the flower by a sensitive strap. Pollination is via male sawflies. When the insect touches the sensitive labellum it snaps shut, trapping the insect in the sticky body of the column. It deposits pollen it may be carrying and picks up more. It is then released to fly to the next orchid.

I’d love to grow one of these (I have several wild orchids in my lab), but, alas, that won’t be. As Kuriositas notes:

 If you have suddenly been gripped by the desire to own your very own duck orchid then you will be disappointed.  Despite numerous attempts, this orchid stubbornly refuses to be propagated, and is only found in the wild. This is because the roots of caleana have a symbiotic relationship with the vegetative part of a fungus which only thrives in the part of Australia in which it originates. The fungus helps the plant to stave off infections and without its help the duck orchid never lasts long.

And the Aussies, God bless them, have put the orchid on a stamp:

Caleana-Orchid-04-210x300

Finally, in a bizarre coincidence, I found this—a duck-faced lacewing fly! (It’s actually a “spoon-winged lacewing” in the genus Nemia, family Nemopteridae.) Spoon-winged lacewings are also called “thread-winged antlions”, for their larvae are predators on ants and other insects.

It’s described on Piotr Naskrecki’s website, The Smaller Majority. Here’s the bill:

The head and mouthparts of spoon-winged lacewings is elongated and well-adapted for fitting into long corollas of flowers [Canon 1Ds MkII, Canon 100mm macro, 2 x Canon 580EX]; photo by Piotr Naskrecki

The head and mouthparts of spoon-winged lacewings is elongated and well-adapted for fitting into long corollas of flowers [Canon 1Ds MkII, Canon 100mm macro, 2 x Canon 580EX]; photo by Piotr Naskrecki

But it’s not just the face that’s weird—check out its hindwings!:

Spoon-winged lacewings (?Nemia sp.) from Richtersveld National Park, South Africa [Canon 1Ds MkII, Canon 100mm macro, 2 x Canon 580EX]; photo by Piotr Naskrecki

Spoon-winged lacewings (?Nemia sp.) from Richtersveld National Park, South Africa [Canon 1Ds MkII, Canon 100mm macro, 2 x Canon 580EX]; photo by Piotr Naskrecki

As Naskrecki explains, the “duckface” is adapted to dip into flowers to eat nectar and pollen, but we don’t know why those hindwings are so large:

These lacewings are easily recognizable thanks to their unique, extremely elongated or enlarged hind wings, reminiscent of the long plumes seen in some birds-of-paradise. The function of this unusual morphology is still not entirely known. In species with particularly enlarged hind wings their function appears to be to deter some predators by giving a false impression of the insect as much larger—and thus potentially stronger—than it really is. In species with long, thread-like wings their function may be related to the aerodynamics of the flight, and in members of the subfamily Crocinae the hind wings play a sensory function in cavernicolous habitats that these insects occupy.

I would have thought sexual selection is involved, making these beasts the insect equivalent of long-tailed widowbirds, but that would lead to sexual dimorphism, with males having much longer wings than females. And that’s apparently not the case.

To see other species in this bizarre group, go here.

h/t: GN

12 Comments

  1. krzysztof1
    Posted February 21, 2013 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    a good example of papiamorphizing!

  2. Bonzodog
    Posted February 21, 2013 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    Def resemblance to 4468 ….

  3. gbjames
    Posted February 21, 2013 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Also known as a Jar-Jar Binks Insect?

  4. Stephen P
    Posted February 21, 2013 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    I read your first sentence and thought “this would have had great April 1 potential”. So I was very amused to see further down that you’d had the same idea.

  5. Filipe
    Posted February 21, 2013 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    Those long wings made me think of paradise flycatchers.

  6. marycanada FCD
    Posted February 21, 2013 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    Cool images.

  7. Alektorophile
    Posted February 21, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Good old CD said it best, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful. Who needs fiction and religious rubbish when nature provides us with animals and plants like these to marvel at!

  8. Thanny
    Posted February 21, 2013 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    Sexual selection only leads to dimorphism when the selected character is otherwise harmful. If it’s neutral, we’d expect both males and females to have it, even though only one sex or the other needed it for mating success. The only reason almost all known sexually selected characteristics are dimorphic is that those are the only ones we can identify.

    Though it certainly seems unlikely that such wings would be neutral, so the conclusion that they aren’t due to sexual selection is probably correct.

  9. lkr
    Posted February 21, 2013 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Now that Jerry’s on this paradoeia kick, I await the Phallales with bated breath…

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 22, 2013 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

      Indeed.

      Speaking of which, I suppose everyone realizes orchids are named after testicles.

  10. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted February 21, 2013 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    So no croco-duck but an orcho-duck! How’s that for a test of evolution?

  11. Marcoli
    Posted February 22, 2013 at 6:39 am | Permalink

    An odd one. Another possibility is the hind wings are ‘false antennae’, directing birds to peck at the rear end rather than the actual head. A variety of other insects employ that tactic.


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