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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Column: Suckers

In some dialects, the term “sucker” refers to one who is easily swindled or deceived. The natural world isn’t without its share of suckers in this sense. For instance, the cuckoo is a species of bird whose key reproductive strategy involves laying eggs in the nests of unsuspecting other species. The unfortunate parents fail to notice the difference and raise the newborn at no cost to the cuckoo. A sucker could literally be born every minute.

Of course, suckers exist outside of the world of birds. There’s a story that involves a very specific relationship. But before we get into that, I’d like to talk about some of the troubles that face plants in their day-to-day lives. A plant doesn’t necessarily care about matters of immigration, the economy or if Kim Kardashian is getting married … again. Instead, they’re focused on more local affairs. More typically, a plant will dedicate the lion’s share of its energy to ensuring that most of its leaves are receiving proper light, and that any offspring will be properly protected and distributed. Counterintuitively, modern parenting in humans has seen a shift away from sunlight.

Humans like to consider themselves innovators. They’ve created spectacular transport systems like the Honda Odyssey and Chevy Suburban to facilitate the safe transit of offspring. It’s important to realize that plants are just as capable of dropping the kids off at the soccer field as the rest of us. They harness the wind to disperse spores, and produce a thick layer of cells around embryos called an integument. The integument and seed coat are incredibly resilient innovations and also protect from side-collisions. Some plants grow thorns to catch would-be predators.

One symbiosis that formed to aid the plants with dispersal came several thousands of years ago. Animals were drawn in by the carbohydrate-rich fruits that contained seeds. Through time they began to nest and live near these plants. In exchange for the sugary fruits of the plants, the animals provide protection. Essentially, for little to no cost, these plants would grow undisturbed and could actually experience higher reproductive success.

Of course, not all partnerships are equal. Often, circumstances change, one steps away a clear victor and the other is left a sucker. One literal sucker is the common carib hummingbird, native to Indonesia. These birds have long existed with a particular species of flower, the heliconia. Hummingbirds are burdened with an incredibly high energetic demand for daily life — they beat their wings absurdly fast, at a rate of 12 beats per second. This high energetic demand means that the birds cannot go too long between meals. The heliconia have evolved a cunning system to keep the birds coming back for more. By rationing the nectar released, the heliconia can keep the hummingbirds around to pollinate the plant indefinitely. The birds are enslaved by their plant and will fight beak and claw to ensure they have a steady supply, much like some Northern Californians.

As animals, people have a pretty high opinion of their own agency within relationships. That is to say, we often consider mobile animals as the ones who set the terms and conditions. But even in interactions with humans, some plants just scroll to the bottom and click OK. The modern iterations of corn, grains, legumes and even apples and oranges have integrated so perfectly into the prevailing system ensuring not only survival of their respective species, but many prosperous generations to come.

Humans have done a number of things to alter the success of these plants — they’ve selected for dramatically altered genomes, setting the stage for plants with high rates of disease resistance and low probability of detrimental mutation. They’ve cleared unfathomable areas of land for the growing and maintenance of crops, and they’ve developed efficient gathering and pollination systems to ensure an uninterrupted supply.

However, consider that millions of man-hours every year are dedicated to the proper maintenance of these crops. Yes, the effort isn’t wasted … people all over the world benefit from the rewards reaped from plants. However, the plants aren’t the ones dramatically changing their lifestyles for the sake of people. With or without the farmer, the orange tree will continue to photosynthesize and produce fruit. Ironically, it is us, the humans — tillers of fields and planters of seeds — who have unwittingly allowed ourselves to become slaves to the crops we think we control.

It is us who are the suckers.

ALAN LIN can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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