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Guest Thinkers

Pollinate Or Die

Cornell University recently released a study that highlighted a strange twist in the mostly symbiotic relationship between fig trees and fig wasps. The story usually goes like this: wasp lays eggs in fig fruit (a protective environment), wasp pollinates said fig, little waspies are safely hatched and set out into the world, fig trees proliferate. But sometimes, a wasp takes advantage of the cozy egg-laying environment the trees figs provide, and neglects to pollinate in return.

When this happens, say the authors of the study (published by Cornell University and Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society), fig trees send the delinquent wasps a clear message by dropping the unpollinated figs to the ground and killing the unhatched wasps inside.

The lethal manner in which fig trees apparently ensure that visiting wasps pay their rent, the Cornell study authors say, is a particularly colorful illustration of the fact that “sanctions seem to be a necessary force in keeping this and other mutually beneficial relationships on track when being part of a mutualism is costly.” In other words, nature keeps its balance by setting limits and punishments in symbiotic relationships.

Here’s the most amazing thing: the study found that fig trees that enforced weaker punishments and were slower to “abort” fruit carrying the eggs of negligent pollinators were surrounded by more pollen-free wasps than were trees with stricter rules. Lazy fig wasps gravitated toward more forgiving fig trees, while wasps who were more industrious in their pollination habits and meticulous about keeping up their end of the bargain gravitated toward trees that demanded a fairer deal.

All of which seems to beg a question the study authors did not broach: Have we humans, as a species, been pollinating (metaphorically) where we’ve been laying our (metaphorical) eggs? Have we been giving back, keeping up our end of the bargain on earth? And if not, after how many decades of pillaging, poisoning, and not paying our rent on this earth, will the other fig drop?


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