Magazine article Science News

Classic Partnership Isn't So Tidy after All. (Fig-Wasp Upset)

Magazine article Science News

Classic Partnership Isn't So Tidy after All. (Fig-Wasp Upset)

Article excerpt

Textbooks that marvel over an extreme example of the buddy system--fig species that supposedly each pair up with a lone pollinating wasp species--may need rewriting, according to a new genetic analysis.

In four out of eight fig species tested in Panama, genetic markers reveal that the supposedly single type of wasp living in the flower turns out to be two species, reports Drude Molbo of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) based in Balboa, Panama. Fig partnerships with multiple wasps may turn out to be "routine," Molbo and her colleagues suggest in an upcoming Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They also have evidence of a single wasp species teaming up with different figs.

Another pollination biologist, Olle Pellmyr of the University of Idaho in Moscow, welcomes the new study as "nice work." The old idea that, except for a few oddballs, each of the world's 800 fig species has an exclusive partnership with a wasp has been "dogma," he says.

Pellmyr points out that biologists have long used fig wasps to study big questions, such as sex ratios, cheating in partnerships, and formation of new species. Molbo's coauthor Allen Herre, also of STRI, says that the team's findings will require some rethinking across a wide range of work, including his own.

The wasps, usually only a few millimeters long, make epic flights of up to 20 kilometers to find the right species of fig in bloom. The female wriggles into the flask-shaped flower, lays eggs, and dies there. Her offspring hatch and mate inside the fig flower. …

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