By Deepa Padmanaban
The succulent sweet fig is a nesting ground for thousands of tiny fig wasps.
The fig tree and fig wasp share a long and unique mutualistic association, one that benefits both equally. Figs depend on wasps to make their seeds and distribute their pollen. In turn, the fig tree acts as a womb where the fig wasps can reproduce.
This association has existed since the time of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Over the millennia both members have adapted to the other: for instance, wasps and seeds take a similar amount of time to develop.
But this friendly alliance sometimes turns sour. In some cases, a fig tree will trick its fig wasp partner. The tree benefits, while the wasp dies.
There are over 750 species of fig trees, all belonging to the genus Ficus. Their pollinating wasps belong to the familyAgaonidae, which contains 20 genera.
The mother wasp now has only 24 hours to live
About half of figs are “monoecious”, meaning each tree produces both male and female flowers. The others are “dioecious” and have two kinds of figs on separate plants: “gall figs” with male and female flowers, and “seed figs” with female flowers only.
Fig trees produce their flowers within enclosed green spherical structures called syconia. Each syconium contains hundreds or even thousands of flowers.
In monoecious species, the female flowers mature first, signalling the syconium to release a fragrant scent. Enticed by the odour, a pregnant female wasp enters the syconium through a tiny opening in the centre.
The wasp is carrying pollen from the flower where she was born. Once inside the syconium, she deposits the pollen, fertilising the flowers.
Their purpose completed, the wingless male wasps die
Then she lays her eggs in the female flowers, using long tubes called ovipositors. The mother wasp now has only 24 hours to live. Before she dies, like any good mother, she ensures the survival of her babies.
Categories: Evolution, The Muslim Times
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