An Exciting New Discovery – Unless You’re a Bug

You never know when a chance encounter will lead to something really big.  It all started when I heard a flower burp.

Seriously.  I was photographing bees in a small wetland when I heard a very soft, but undeniable, belching sound come from somewhere nearby.  I ignored it the first time, but when I heard it again a few minutes later, it stopped me in my tracks.  It was about five minutes before I heard it again, and a full 2 hours before I finally tracked the sound to its source, but boy am I glad I took the time to do it.  If I hadn’t we may never have found out that the blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) is a carnivorous plant – and that it burps during its meal.

A soldier beetle, lured to a lobelia flower by the sweet scent and promise of a pollen meal, is held fast by the flower and slowly digested from the head up.  Most amazing is the yet unexplained "burp" sound that is emitted by the flower at fairly regular intervals during this process.

A soldier beetle, lured to a lobelia flower by the sweet scent and promise of a pollen meal, is held fast by the flower and slowly digested from the head up. Most amazing is the yet unexplained “burp” sound that is emitted by the flower at fairly regular intervals during this process.  Be sure to read to the very end of this post for all the information on this.

If you didn’t know me so well, you’d think I was just making things up, right?  Imagine how difficult it was for me to get any prominent botanists to believe me.  I spent painstaking hours armed with borrowed sound recording equipment trying to get a lobelia flower to eat a small cricket only to find out that – apparently – lobelia flowers are picky eaters.  In case you’re wondering, they also turn up their noses at hover flies, lady bugs, and stink bugs (ok, the last one makes sense, I guess).  It was only when I fed it a soldier beetle (the species I’d actually seen and heard that first lobelia flower feeding on) that I finally got the sound I needed.  And even then, the first 11 botanists I sent it to accused me of just burping into a microphone and sending it to them.

Finally, I found someone who took me seriously.  Dr. Geoffrey Pullen-Yyrlig at Chandler University in Stockholm returned my email and said he’d like to hear more.  After several back and forth exchanges, he agreed to help me document and publish the observation.  As a result, we have an article coming out this week in the next issue of the Journal of Acoustical Botany.  In it, we speculate that the lobelia flower uses its scent to lure soldier beetles in for a meal of pollen but then has a yet-to-be-understood method of preventing the beetle from backing out of the flower once it’s in.  We think it may be related to a chemical bond that occurs between the flower’s surface and the unique texture of the soldier beetle’s wing coverings.  We have absolutely no explanation for the burping sound.

Anyway, I’ll be sure to post the link to the article when it comes out, but I wanted to be sure to let you know about it today.  It seemed like the right day to finally post something about this discovery!

A burping plant.  Who would have guessed?  Nature is full of surprises, isn’t it?

.

Oh, I almost forgot…

Happy April Fools Day!

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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24 Responses to An Exciting New Discovery – Unless You’re a Bug

  1. Chris Helzer says:

    Sorry about that, everyone. I had that photo of a soldier beetle feeding on Lobelia pollen and couldn’t resist….

  2. Todd Boller says:

    Love it! Good way to start a day is with a good joke and that is kind of believable. I wonder if people will actually read it to the end? Good one!

  3. No apology needed. If I may blend a couple of proverbs — A twinkle of mirth is the reason for the season. :)

  4. Pat Halderman says:

    You got me! I was reading the post and thinking, “Wow, really?” Then common sense prevailed
    and I remembered it is April 1. Good one!

  5. Wow! You had me until the Journal of Accoustical Botany! Great story…..would love to hear you present it as a tall tale….

  6. Paul Brewer says:

    That one started my day off with a laugh Chris!! I was waiting for a story about the burping beetle.
    Have a safe and fire-filled spring Chris, and keep up the great work!

  7. willjhud says:

    nice…you got me!

  8. This is a great find Chris! My dogs will be happy that I can blame something else besides them!

  9. Susan Carpenter says:

    Real prairie acoustics–Curtis Prairie (Wisconsin) is full of indigo music today. Baptisia alba open pods clattering and dropping seeds while the wind melts the last of our snow cover.

  10. Great Job! You had me amazed, wondering, pissed-off, and laughing…all in a matter of a few paragraphs! touché !

  11. John I. Blair says:

    The “Journal of Acoustical Botany” was the first inkling I had that something might be spurious here, but then I’m an English major, not a botanist (or entomologist). Good joke! Classic “scholarly” April Fool’s variety.

  12. John I. Blair says:

    Guess Dr. Pullen-Yyrlig should have been a hint at your drift, too. But those Scandinavian names always were difficult.

  13. Ed May says:

    That’s a good one Chris!! I’m afraid to admit you had me going for a moment ( don’t tell anyone).

    Sent from my iPhone

  14. John I. Blair says:

    And I see that Chandler University should have been a dead giveaway, since it’s actually a storefront in Phoenix. (I’m surprised it even exists.)

  15. Ernest Ochsner says:

    This is why 9 year old kids can learn to love nature, even on April Fool’s day a seemingly serious person can have fun in the field, oh right computer.

  16. Carol Sinner says:

    Great April fool’s prank – you got me!

  17. Lynne says:

    You pulled a fast one on me too! Loved it.

  18. LJ says:

    I was pretty well suspecting this and knew for sure when I got to Dr. Pullen-Yyrlig.

  19. Dan Morgan says:

    Hi Chris,

    What an outstanding discovery. I notified National Geographic about it. They want to write a special article in an upcoming issue of their magazine. They are really excited and want to see more related photographs. I also have a friend with the National Science Foundation (NSF). He also was excited to hear about it and is sending a team of scientists to look into it more. What a find. Congratulations!

    Best regards, Dan

    PS Happy April Fools in reverse. :)

    ________________________________

  20. Maggi S. says:

    I just read this today (April 4) and was fooled! You’re a great story teller!! Thanks for the laugh.

  21. “You pulled a fast one on me too! Loved it.”
    Couldn’t agree more!

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