September 24, 2021

Caught in the act: Opossums pollinate bizarre parasitic plant

Scybalium fungiforme is a strange plant. Found along the Atlantic coast of Brazil, it’s a parasite that feeds off the roots of other plants. It’s also only visible when it sprouts gory, red, funguslike flowers up from the ground for sexual reproduction.

Today, scientists have added another oddity to the list. Researchers had long suspected that because the female flowers of S. fungiforme are covered in hard scales that shield its nectar, it couldn’t be pollinated by a bird or bee. And now, thanks to night vision cameras, scientists have their culprit: opossums.

Since the early 1990s, researchers have suspected opossums could pollinate the plant because the mammals live in the same region, and because their sharp, opposable claws would allow them to peel away the scales to get at the juicy nectar inside. In prior studies, a researcher had even trapped an opossum with S. fungiforme pollen on its nose.

The find, published today in Ecology, comes courtesy of infrared camera traps carefully positioned around the plants. The cameras recorded 14 different visits from opossums over a 4-night period, confirming the decades-old hypothesis. But the opossums don’t appear to work alone. After they open the scales, bees, wasps, and even hummingbirds swooped in to cart pollen away.

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