Speck of Science 1/24/16 – Bees of the Seas

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Many of nature’s means of doing business on land has aquatic parallels. Seagrasses produce seeds and pollen the same way as terrestrial grasses do. However, there are certainly some differences. The pollen grains of seagrasses dwarf their land-based counterparts at almost 50 times larger, and the physics of the water in which pollination occurs certainly follows rules vastly different than those air currents.

Scientists have been postulating for some time about how marine plants get the job done in such a different environment, evident in this 1976 abstract for a submission in Letters to Nature.  Many aquatic plants may reproduce by variations of self-cloning where a sexual partner is not needed to give rise to new individuals. Sea grasses often dabble in a little of both worlds, as both have their evolutionary advantages. Cloning, often referred to more specifically as vegetative propagation in plants, allows underwater flora to quickly take up real estate without expending as many resources.  However, sexual reproduction confers the benefits of genetic variation and adaptability into their populations.

Initially, it was suggested water bore the primary burden of transporting pollen grains from male to female seagrass plants. However, in 2009, a team of researchers from National Autonomous University of Mexico led by  Brigitta van Tussenbroek observed small invertebrate crustaceans visiting turtlegrass (Thalassia testudinum) flowers in a manner that reminded them of terrestrial bees.

To explore whether or not these small creatures had the capacity to truly serve as pollinators, they moved their exploration in the controlled setting of a laboratory. They put turtlegrass and pollinators in tanks sans current, and monitored the movement of pollen grains as well as successful instances of pollination. Both successfully occurred in tanks where crustaceans had been added, but not in tanks where the animals were absent. The research team coined a new term, zoobenthophilous pollination, to describe the marine process they observed.

Seagrasses are vital to human wellbeing in ways similar to oyster reefs, coral reefs, and mangroves, and provide a wealth of services to the environments they thrive in. They are an important food source for manatees, dugongs, turtles, and other creatures. Their root systems stabilizes sea floors. They may serve as nursery grounds for minuscule juvenile fish needing protection from predators. But seagrasses have seen vast decline worldwide, in what could be called a global crisis. Now that we are learning seagrass survival may also have dependence on pollinators, we can only hope we do a better job of conserving these little sea bees than we have their terrestrial counterparts.

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