A UCT researcher has discovered an orchid which sexually exploits male longhorn beetles, a world first from Africa. Picture: Dr Callan Cohen/Supplied
A UCT researcher has discovered an orchid which sexually exploits male longhorn beetles, a world first from Africa. Picture: Dr Callan Cohen/Supplied

Extremely rare Cape orchid deceives male beetle into having sex for pollination

By Nomalanga Tshuma Time of article published May 31, 2021

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Cape Town - An orchid that disguises itself as a female beetle and then have its way with the male beetle is astonishing researchers at UCT’s FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology.

Dr Callan Cohen, an associate with the FitzPatrick Institute, discovered the world’s first orchid that sexually exploits longhorn beetles.

According to Cohen, his discovery of the world pollination first is not only significant for being a world first but also because the orchid identified is a nearly extinct Disa forficaria.

Cohen said the nearly extinct Disa forficaria is known from a single remaining plant in the mountains near Cape Town, and it mimics a female beetle so convincingly the male beetle mates with the flower, thus pollinating it.

While working to document his finding, Cohen along with his team of local and international researchers discovered an entirely new chemical system involved in this deception, and they are pioneering the process of using pollination to survey for the presence of critically endangered plants.

The discoveries stem from Cohen’s search for rare African orchids in the mountain ranges near Cape Town. The Disa forficaria, a relative of the iconic Red Disa, was last seen in 1966, and only 11 of these plants have been found in the last 200 years, making it one of the rarest plants in the world.

“Incredibly, while I was observing, a beetle flew to the plant and mated with it. Orchids are known as deceivers, they mainly utilise food deception by imitating plants with nectar despite having none.

“They have been found to use sexual deception on bees and wasps. But while beetles are the oldest known pollinators of plants, and the most diverse group of plant pollinators, this was the first clear case of a plant sexually deceiving a beetle. This is only the second time in the world that an insect has been found to ejaculate on a plant during pollination,” said Cohen.

Following his multiple discoveries, and the recent publication of his work and research, Cohen’s team’s findings in Current Biology, pollination experts from around the world are studying the consequences and implications.

Cape Argus

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