We're familiar with plants being pollinated by insects, birds, or the wind. A few even rely on bats. However, South Africa's Guthrica capensis are innovators, having formed a symbiotic relationship with tiny, nectar-eating dragons.
Where most flowering plants display their flowers as prominently as possible to attract pollinators, Guthriea has earned the popular name “hidden flower” for tucking them under large leaves at ground level. Yet the strong scent and abundant supply of sugar-rich nectar make clear the plants have evolved to divert resources into attracting pollinators. The question for University of the Free State researchers was what this pollinator might be.
The hidden flowers are green, other than a few orange ones around the base, making them even harder for any animal that relies on sight to find. Dr Sandy-Lynn Steenhuisen has studied the use of rodents as pollinators by proteas, and initially suspected a similar go-between for the hidden flowers. “Everything about the plant made it look like it should be mammal-pollinated,” she said in a statement.
However, motion cameras revealed the flowers are frequently visited by crag lizards (Pseudocordylus langi), who dip their snouts in to obtain nectar, carrying away pollen in the process, which is brought to the flowers of neighboring plants.
In Ecology Steenhuisen reports the lizards are more than just one of many pollinators. When she excluded the lizards from a set of plants, seed production dropped by 95 percent, indicating almost complete dependence on the lizards. Guthriea would likely go extinct if something were to happen to their scaly allies.
Lizards have been observed providing pollinating services before, but almost always on remote islands where wildlife diversity is low and lizard populations are high, forcing plants to make do with what they can.
Appropriately, the flowers grow high in the Maluti range. The Afrikaans name for these mountains, which they were officially known by for decades, is Drakensberg, or “Mountains of Dragons”. The name may come from the shapes of some of the peaks, or the dinosaur bones found nearby.
The Drakensberg crag lizard is one of six species of lizards that were given the genus name Pseudocordylus because on sight they look like the girdled lizards, cordylus. They are distinguished by the small scales on their backs, but genetic research indicates first appearances might have been right after all, and they may belong in the cordylus family.
Cordylus are not members of the Agamidae family, many of whose members are known as dragons – including such famous members as the Chinese Water Dragon and the sexually baffling Central Bearded Dragon. Nevertheless, their location gives them a strong claim to be honorary dragons, even if no one is going to ride them, or try to steal their nectar treasure.