Griggs Heliconia

It’s a plant with beautiful flowers, and it grows in southern Mexico and Central America. The flowers are designed so that only certain hummingbirds can pollinate them. The species is Heliconia tortuosa also known as the Griggs heliconia. Six different hummingbird species visit these plants and carry their pollen. However, there are only two species that contribute significantly to the plant’s reproduction. Why that is true is a remarkable design feature that has to do with genetic mixing.

Inbreeding of plants or animals–and humans–creates problems. Harmful genetic traits are more likely to show up in inbred plants or animals. Animal breeders avoid breeding litter-mates together. Mixing the stock minimizes inbred malformities. Botanists gather pollen from various plants to avoid similar problems. How can plants in the wild gather pollen from a wider area? Research on the Griggs heliconia shows one solution to that problem.

Even though other hummingbirds visit this plant, it only recognizes and responds to the green hermit and violet sabrewing hummingbirds. When those hummingbirds visit, the plant responds by extending more pollen-tube growth. Why does the Griggs heliconia prefer those two species of hummingbirds? The other hummingbird species are territorial and therefore stay in a small area and gather pollen from local plants that may be closely related. The two preferred pollinators are hermit hummingbirds that travel long distances and therefore carry pollen from plants that are not close relatives. In this way, inbreeding is avoided by design.

The biologists who studied Griggs heliconia said that this was the first time to their knowledge that a plant had “the capacity to recognize pollinator species immediately after visitation.” This is a mutual relationship that benefits both the plant and the pollinators which eat the nectar. The researchers consider it an example of “co-evolution.” We see it as another example of design by the Master Designer.
© Roland Earnst

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