Life

An orchid uses its moldy looks to draw flies, plus snake fights and beelining whales in this week’s news

Orchids’ phony fungus An orchid with black, hairy spots on its leaves may be the first example of a newly discovered kind of pollination by deceit: attracting fungus-seeking flies just by looking and smelling moldy. Southwestern China’s Cypripedium fargesii offers no nectar or other recognizable food to attract pollinating insects, but tests showed that the flowers need help in moving pollen. Monitoring revealed that flat-footed flies are probable pollinators. The orchids’ funky scent shares three compounds with a fungus these flies appear to eat, an international team reports online April 18 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences . — Susan Milius Snake fights In the first detailed study of territoriality in snakes, female Taiwanese kukrisnakes defended nests of yummy sea turtle eggs for weeks against males eager to share the bonanza. Territoriality is very rare among snakes, but a turtle nest offers an unusual concentration of food worth defending. And the species’ typical tail-first response to aggression renders males, which have reproductive organs in their tails, especially vulnerable to females determined to stand their ground. Kukrisnakes offer a chance to analyze factors favoring animal territoriality in a lineage that did not just inherit the trait from an ancestral species, an international research team reports online April 18 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences . — Susan Milius Straight-line whales At the risk of zoological metaphor mixing, humpback whales turn out to make beelines. Monitoring radio tags on 16 humpbacks revealed that in their 6,500-kilometer-plus migrations across open ocean, whales typically include stints of swimming in very close to a straight line for at least 200 kilometers and often farther. One humpback motored along in a steady direction for 2,200 kilometers. While making these whalelines, most humpbacks kept on course with better than one degree of precision, despite crosswise currents and storms. Such feats raise questions about how the whales navigate so well, an international research team reports online April 20 in Biology Letters . — Susan Milius

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