“A Tale of Loyalty and Betrayal, Starring Figs and Wasps”

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The Story

“A Tale of Loyalty and Betrayal, Starring Figs and Wasps”
by Deepa Padmanaban
BBC Earth, May 1, 2016

The Pitch

The luscious sweet fig is an expert in Machiavellian tactics. It tricks wasps by seducing them with scents, for its own benefit but at the cost of the wasp’s. This fatal attraction, discovered recently by a group of scientists from India, China and France,  is unique to edible figs only and differs from the normal  ‘mutualism’ that exists between wasps and other figs.

Many fig species share a mutually beneficial relationship with wasps, where wasps help figs by pollinating their flowers, while figs provide wasps with mating and hatching grounds.  The fig-wasp lays its eggs in figs, which act as a womb for the new eggs to hatch and develop into adults. The adults mate within the fig; the blind and wingless male wasps then cut an opening allowing the female wasp to fly out in search of another fig to lay eggs in. This association has existed for over 80 million years, and is the norm for fig species which are bisexual.

However, a recent study published in Nature Scientific Reports, led by Dr. Renee Borges of the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science, found that the scenario is different for edible figs which are unisexual. The male and female flowers are present on different trees and in such species, the wasp eggs can only hatch in the male fig; the long flower stalks of the female fig are not suitable.

By analyzing floral scents, the researchers found that when male and female trees flower synchronously, the female figs deceptively attract wasps even when it doesn’t benefit them, tricking them into committing reproductive suicide.

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