The Kings Park Science team have jumped at the opportunity to see what goes on in banksia woodland at all times of the day and night.
Many Australian animals spend their days hidden away; asleep in a nest, burrow or hollow. The bush comes alive at night with furry and flying creatures going about their business without the worry of heat, predators and human observation.
It would make sense that plants would adjust their behaviour to cater to nocturnal, flower-loving pollinators like bats or possums but our understanding of pollination can be skewed to what we see during the day. Most of our observations are of birds, bees and other insects flocking to plants to feast on flowers and fruit, and spread the seed and pollen love.
The recent boom in affordable and easy to use surveillance equipment has provided scientists with lots of options for making high quality night time observations. Heat and movement activated cameras can take hundreds of pictures each night in any setting, capturing new information without any disturbance to the persons, or animals, of interest.
Researcher Dr Siegy Krauss set up a covert wildlife watching operation in a patch of banksia woodland north of Perth, focused on flowering heads of Banksia ilicifolia (Holly-leaved Banksia) and Banksia menziesii (Firewood Banksia).
The candid cameras caught some cute and surprising visitors. As well as a wonderful variety of day time honeyeaters, spinebills and wattlebirds, the cameras snapped a lot of after-dark action.
The night time images showed that it was honey possums (Tarsipes rostratus) working the pollination night shift. At only 7-10 grams in weight, they are the only marsupial in the world with a diet entirely made up of pollen and nectar.
Honey possums have a super pointy nose and long, brush tipped tongue that act identically to the beak and tongue of honeyeater birds. Even their scientific name ‘rostratus’ means ‘beaked’ in Latin.
These adaptations show an obvious co-evolution with banksias as they fit so perfectly between banksia flowers to extract nectar. The long faces of honeyeaters and honey possums catch a lot of pollen, facilitating transfer of pollen between flowers as they forage. In this way both the animal and the flower get a reward from their relationship.
Dr Krauss and the team are extending their pollination research to include genetic work that is like a paternity test for banksias.
Each banksia seed represents one pollinated flower. By looking at the seed’s DNA they can pinpoint exactly which tree the pollen came from, providing a lot of information about how far pollinators are carrying pollen and how much pollen mixing is taking place.
By studying banksia pollination, the Kings Park Science team can get a better idea of what factors are needed to conserve banksia species and communities. The unique relationships between plants and animals can be complex. Land clearing and fragmentation can damage those relationships and threaten a plant’s ability to reproduce. When bushland is rehabilitated, it is only viable if the pollinators return.