The perks of being a wallflower: Plant used in traditional Chinese medicine has evolved to become LESS visible to humans to avoid being picked
- Fritillaria delavayi is a perennial herb employed to treat ailments of the lungs
- It grows and is harvested amid the Hengduan mountains of southwest China
- Researchers from the UK and China studied its colouration in different areas
- They found it has become better camouflaged in areas of greater harvesting
- Humans are accidentally helping evolution select against more visible colours
Human activity has driven a plant used in traditional Chinese medicine to evolve to become less visible so it can avoid being picked, a study has found.
Experts from the UK and China found that Fritillaria delavayi — in those areas where it is most heavily harvested — camouflages itself better against the surrounding rocks.
The findings suggest that humans are helping to select for new colour forms of the small flower, as better-camouflaged plants have a higher chance of survival.
Fritillaria delavayi is a perennial herb with leaves that vary in colour from green to grey or brown — and produces a single flower in its fifth year.
It has been employed as a treatment for ailments of the lungs for more than two millennia — although high demand in recent years has led to increased harvesting.
Human activity has driven a plant (Fritillaria delavayi, pictured) used in traditional Chinese medicine to evolve to become less visible so it can avoid being picked, a study has found
‘It’s remarkable to see how humans can have such a direct and dramatic impact on the colouration of wild organisms, not just on their survival but on their evolution itself,’ said paper author and biologist Martin Stevens, the University of Exeter.
‘Many plants seem to use camouflage to hide from herbivores that may eat them – but here we see camouflage evolving in response to human collectors.’
‘It’s possible that humans have driven evolution of defensive strategies in other plant species, but surprisingly little research has examined this.’
In their study, Professor Stevens and colleagues measured how closely Fritillaria delavayi from different areas matched their surroundings in the Hengduan mountains of China — and, by extension, how easy they would be to harvest.
The team also spoke to local people to estimate how much harvesting of the plants took place in each of the locations that they studied.
The researchers found that the level of camouflage in the plants appeared to be correlated with harvesting levels.
Furthermore, in a follow-up computer experiment, the team found that people took longer to spot the better-camouflaged plants amid the landscape.
Experts from the UK and China found that Fritillaria delavayi — in those areas where it is most heavily harvested — camouflages itself better against the surrounding rocks. Pictured, Fritillaria delavayi in low (left) and high (right) harvesting areas
‘Like other camouflaged plants we have studied, we thought the evolution of camouflage of this fritillary had been driven by herbivores, but we didn’t find such animals,’ said paper author Yang Niu of the Kunming Institute of Botany, China.
‘Then we realised humans could be the reason,’ Dr Niu added.
‘Commercial harvesting is a much stronger selection pressure than many pressures in nature,’ said fellow Kunming Institute botanist Hang Sun.
‘The current biodiversity status on the earth is shaped by both nature and by ourselves.’
The full findings of the study were published in the journal Current Biology.
CAMOUFLAGE TECHNIQUES USED BY BOTH PLANTS AND ANIMALS
Plants may appear passive but they camouflage themselves just like animals, research has revealed.
Blending into the background helps plants protect themselves from predators and has the same benefits as the technique does to animals.
They use various crafty techniques including making themselves look like unimportant objects such as a stones.
Background matching – this involves blending with the colours of shapes of the habitat where they live.
Disruptive coloration – markings that create the appearance of false edges and boundaries, making it harder to see the true outline.
Masquerade – looking like something else; usually something a predator might ignore, such a stone or twig.
Examples include living stones, some cacti, passion vines and mistletoes.
Decoration – accumulating material from the environment.
For example, some coastal and dune plants get covered by sand because of their sticky glands, making them less conspicuous of shapes of the habitat where they live.