Architectural analogies in evolution are not new. The most famous (and, in its time, controversial) is perhaps Gould and Lewontin’s “Spandrels of San Marcos and the Panglossian Paradigm” in which these prominent evolutionary biologists suggested that some features of the biology of species were secondary “emergent” structures which formed from the conjunction of other, evolved characteristics. That is to say these features are not evolved in their own right, they are simply by-products of the evolution of other factors. In this respect they are like “spandrels” – the ornamented space between two structurally significant elements, for example the arches and the domed roof they uphold in the Basilica di San Marco in Rome. Gould and Lewontin were following a metaphorical path that had been traversed by many major figures in evolutionary biology. Most notably, Darwin used the notion of the architect, contrasting natural with artificial selection, in a number of his books, including “The variation of animals and plants under domestication”.
Another architectural analogy occurred to me over the past couple of weeks, time Karin and I have spent back in Tenerife pursuing field work funded by a small grant from the British Ecological Society. We are staying in a cottage in the pretty village of Chirche in the west of the island. The older properties, our rented castita included, are roofed with traditional, hand made rough clay tiles that are slim, curved and tapering towards one end. Tiles are carefully laid curve up and curve downwards in alternating rows so as to both shield the building from the weather and to shed the rain from the roof in the channels formed by the up-curved rows. These same tiles are used along the ridges of the roof, in contrast to roofing back in the UK where differently shaped tiles would serve for roof and ridge. Not only that but the same basic curved and tapering form serves as a structural element for the tops of walls, as half pipes to direct the flow of water, and as building blocks for chimney stacks, etc.
It’s a wonderful example of economy of manufacture and purpose, using the same basic element to serve multiple functions. What has this to do with biodiversity you ask? It’s a fitting observation for this trip, in as much as we are studying flowers and their visitors. Flowers are another great example of the economy of evolution: all of their basic elements (male stamens, female stigma style and ovary, petals and sepals) have evolved from the same basic botanical element – leaves. If that seems unlikely take a look (a really close look) at some of the fancy, highly bred flowers for sale at your local garden centre or plant nursery. Some will have leaf-like structures deep within the flower where genetic mutations have resulted in the expression of organs rather more like their ancestral form than like stamens or petals.
The purpose of returning to Tenerife is to collect more data as part of an on-going project I’ve been running within our undergraduate field course. The Canary Wallflower (Erysimum scoparium) has flowers that change colour; they are pure white when they first open and from the second day onwards they darken to violet then ultimately purple, staying on the plant for up to 10 days. At the same time the flowers stop producing nectar. The pollinators learn to associate white flowers with more reward and focus their attention on the newly opened blossoms. This is clearly an evolved strategy as it benefits the plant to have its most recent flowers preferentially visited, rather than the older flowers that have already received pollen.
In an earlier paper we demonstrated, by removing purple flowers from experimental plants, that these older flowers act as a long-to-medium range advertisement to pollinators (the plants look purple from a distance). It’s a very intriguing system. We now have about 10 years of data showing that the main pollinator is an endemic solitary bee (Anthophora alluadi). But there seems to be some variation between years, with a wider range of different bee species present in years following very dry winters (such as this one) when there are fewer other plants in flower. So the idea that we are testing is that the relative specialisation of the plant (i.e. how many pollinator species it has) is context dependent: in some years/sites it is a specialist, in others a generalist.
Biodiversity is not fixed in time or space. It varies at all scales and, for this plant and its pollinators, the biodiversity of interactions between them is stable only over modest time periods. Over the millions of years these plants and bees have existed in the Canarian archipelago, their exact roles within the system have probably varied enormously, like actors improvising their parts dependent on the whims of external forces, in this case weather conditions. The roof tiles of Chirche saw little rainfall during the last winter; bad for the local farmers and the other people who depend on this rain. But good for ecologists wishing to study how variation in climate can affect biodiversity.