Wild gerbils pollinate African desert lily

Gerbils haven’t taken to the air and started buzzing, but scientists now have

A hairy-footed gerbil probes for nectar (above) in a Massonia bloom from southern Africa and emerges with a yellow, pollen-dusted snout (below). A. Pauw and Johnson

A. Pauw and Johnson

evidence that they spread pollen as bees do.

In southern Africa, the hairy-footed and the short-tailed gerbils poke into a

ground-hugging lily, slurping nectar and emerging dusted with pollen, says Steven

D. Johnson of the University of Natal in Petermaritzburg, South Africa. In one

sandy area tested, the gerbils do most of the pollination for the plant, his team

reports in the October American Journal of Botany. In rockier terrain, at least

two other rodents transfer pollen, too.

Bats are the champion pollinators among mammals, but scientists have reported that

at least 59 species of nonflying mammals, mostly marsupials and primates,

pollinate plants in 19 families. Only three plant families, none closely related

to lilies, have confirmed rodent pollinators, Johnson says. Yet the lily flowers

resemble others that rodents pollinate. “The heart of the story is that we got the

idea [of testing for rodent pollination] from the similarities,” he says.

The lily, Massonia depressa, grows in the dry region called the Succulent Karoo.

In the same family as garden-variety hyacinths, the African plant forms two large,

flat leaves. “Imagine water lily leaves spread on the ground,” says Johnson.

The flowers, tufts clustered in a bristling pom-pom, also sit at ground level.

Starting each evening, they secrete gobs of nectar as thick as jelly.

The nectar’s accessibility for nocturnal rodents caught the researchers’ attention

because some Protea shrubs pollinated by African mice also bear low flowers. Like

the Protea, the lily produces unusually sturdy blooms, which withstand rodents’


The researchers assumed that they were looking for a nighttime visitor, so they

set soot-covered cardboard and catch-and-release traps near blooms. The cardboard

picked up rodent paw prints, and the traps caught three mouse and two gerbil species. The five gerbils–classified as Gerbillurus paeba and Desmodillus auricularis–belong in sister genera to the one that includes the common pet.

When Johnson checked his captives’ snouts, 7 of 13 animals carried telltale lily

pollen. The researchers released the trapped gerbils into an enclosure around a

plant, and the rodents dove for nectar, leaving the flower intact but their snouts

gilded with pollen. “They prize the flowers open with their front legs and push

their faces in,” Johnson says.

In another field test, researchers covered flowers with mesh that admits insects

but not gerbils and mice. Seed number plummeted in these caged lilies compared

with unencumbered plants.

The lily work stemmed from the notion that unrelated flowers converge on rodent-attracting traits, says Johnson. However, he acknowledges that such patterns have

proved controversial. Challengers have published long lists of disparate

pollinators visiting flowers supposedly specialized for only some of them.

Finding which flower visitors pollinate well and which just loiter needs a lot

study, says Susan Carthew of the Adelaide University in Roseworthy, Australia.

Despite all the reports of nonflying mammal pollination, Carthew says, “we really

don’t know a lot about it.”

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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