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!