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Scientists Reveal the Invisible Secret Behind Spectacular Blooms in the World’s Driest Desert

The Atacama desert, which stretches for nearly 1,600 kilometers along the western coast of South America’s cone, is the driest place on the planet. Some of the weather stations there have never recorded any rain in all of their years of operation. However, it’s far from being lifeless; numerous species that are unique to this area exist here and have adapted to its harsh environment. And, every five to ten years, from September to mid-November, the Atacama presents one of the most stunning sights of the natural world: the ‘desierto florido‘ (literally, ‘blooming desert’). These mass blooms, one of which is presently taking place in the northern Atacama following considerable rainfall earlier this year, frequently draw international media attention.

However, what physiological and evolutionary mechanisms allow for the enormous variety of flower colors, shapes, and visual patterns seen in desiertos floridos? And how do pollinators, mainly hymenopterans like solitary wasps and bees in the Atacama, who are the beneficiaries of this visual spectacle, perceive all this variation? This is the topic of recent research published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

The ‘desierto florido‘ event in Sep-Nov 2021 near the city of Caldera, Chile, as viewed by satellite. The mass bloom is dominated by purple pussypaws Cistanthe longiscapa (family Montiaceae). Credit: European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-2 imagery

“Our aim was to shed light on the ecological and evolutionary mechanisms that cause biological diversity in extreme environments like the Atacama desert,” said first author Dr. Jaime Martinez-Harms, a researcher at the Institute of Agricultural Research in La Cruz, Chile.

“Here we show that flowers of the pussypaw Cistanthe longiscapa, a representative species for desiertos floridos in the Atacama desert, are highly variable in the color and patterns they present to pollinators. This variability probably results from different so-called ‘betalain’ pigments in the flower petals.”

Model species

Martnez-Harms and colleagues investigated a desierto florido event in late 2021 in the northern Chilean city of Caldera. A dominant species was C. longiscapa (family Montiaceae), an annual plant up to 20 cm high, which bloomed in two distinct patches tens of km across. These patches consisted of – to human eyes – uniformly purple and yellow flowers. Between them grew numerous intermediate (ie, reddish, pinkish, and white) flowers of the same species, strongly suggesting that the purple and yellow morphs are heritable variants that can interbreed.

Purple pussypaw Cistanthe longiscapa (family Montiaceae), the focus of this study. Credit: Oven Perez-Nates

Visualizing flowers as insects see them

Insects, with their compound eyes and different sensitivities, see the world very differently than we do. For example, most hymenopterans have three types of photoreceptors, which are maximally sensitive to UV, blue, and green. Martinez-Harms et al. used cameras sensitive to visible light and UV and spectrometers to measure the reflection, absorption, and transmission of different wavelengths by the petals of a total of 110 purple, yellow, red, pink, and white C. longiscapa flowers. This enabled them to produce composite images of these variants as seen by their many species of pollinators.

Diversity hidden from human eyes

The results show that just within this single plant species, the diversity perceptible to pollinators was greater than to us. For example, hymenopterans, just like us, can easily distinguish between red, purple, white, and yellow variants. But they can also distinguish between flowers with a high versus a low UV reflection among yellow and purple flowers. A UV ‘bullseye pattern’ at the heart of some flowers, which guides pollinators to the nectar and pollen, is invisible to us.

Taken during the 2021 ‘desierto florido‘ near Caldera, Chile. The purple flowers are Cistanthe longiscapa, the object of this study. Credit: Oven Perez-Nates

An exception are the UV-reflecting pink and reddish C. longiscapa, which are quite distinct to human eyes, but probably appear similar to hymenopterans.

This visual diversity of C. longiscapa flowers is probably mainly due to differences between betalains – yellow, orange, and purple pigments that are a typical trait of the plant order Caryophyllales to which the pussypaws belong. Betalains don’t just give colors to flowers: they also protect from drought, salt stress, and damage from reactive oxygen radicals under environmental stress – traits highly beneficial in deserts.

Pollinators drive the selection of new variants

The authors hypothesized that the observed standing diversity within C. longiscapa flowers is driven by differences in the sensitivity and preference for different colors and patterns across many species of pollinators: an evolutionary experiment going on right now, which mostly escapes our eyesight.

“The great variation in flower color within C. longiscapa can be explained if different species of pollinating insects, through their preference for particular flower colors and patterns, could cause these variants to become reproductively isolated from other individuals of the same plant species. This ongoing process could ultimately lead to the origin of new races or species,” said Martinez-Harms.

“In our next studies, we will further investigate the chemical identity and the biological synthesis pathways of betalains and other flower pigments, as well as their relationship to traits such as the scents produced by the flowers. This should help us to understand their role in shaping the interactions between plants and their pollinators, and in the plants’ tolerance to biotic and abiotic stressors under fluctuating climate conditions,” said Martinez-Harms.

Reference: “Mechanisms of flower coloring and eco-evolutionary implications of massive blooming events in the Atacama Desert” by Jaime Martinez-Harms, Pablo C. Guerrero, Maria Jose Martinez-Harms, Nicolas Poblete, Katalina Gonzalez, Doekele G. Stavenga and Misha Vorobyev, 21 October 2022, Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

DOI: 10.3389/fevo.2022.957318

The study was funded by the AFOSR/EOARD, the FONDECYT, the ANID-Millennium Science Initiative Program, and ANID/BASAL.


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