Surprise! Cricket Pollinates Rare Orchids

This is the first time scientists have seen a cricket pollinating a flower and it represents rapid adaptation.

A cricket has been discovered pollinating a flowering plant for the first time ever, researchers report in the Jan. 12 issue of Annals of Botany.

Video captured on Reunion Island, east of Madagascar, found a previously unknown species of cricket sneaking in at night and helping one species of orchid reproduce.

In this highly unusual role, the cricket is apparently filling in the part of a specialized moth that normally pollinates such flowers. But on this island, these moths are not found. So the finding offers a striking example of how species -- such as the flowering orchid -- figure out a way to adapt or die.

The discovery shocked and excited orchid researcher Claire Micheneau.

"Watching the footage for the first time, and realizing that we had filmed a truly surprising shift in the pollination of Angraecum, a genus that is mainly specialized for moth pollination, was thrilling," Micheneau said.

The orchids were of particular interest because they were relatively new arrivals to the island from Madagascar, and did not have Madagascan insects around to pollinate them.

"This was not on anyone's radar," said professor Mark Chase, keeper of the Jodrell Laboratory at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in the U.K. and co-author of the report.

Micheneau kept an eye on three species of Reunion orchids and first discovered that two of them were being pollinated by songbirds, which is not unprecedented, Chase explained. The third was not getting any daytime action at all.

"So she knew something was going on at night," said Chase.

That prompted her to set up motion sensitive night cameras, which to her surprise, revealed a new species of cricket very purposefully moving from flower to flower collecting nectar and carrying pollen on its head.

Indeed, a cricket is a far cry from the orchid's typical Madagascan pollinators, said orchid expert Mark Whitten of the University of Florida.

"Most (of these type of orchids) are pollinated by very long-tongued Sphinx moths," said Whitten, referring to the remarkable moths with the foot-long tongues that Charles Darwin had famously predicted existed and which were then later found by biologists.

Apparently, when these orchids colonized on remote islands, their normal pollinating moths may be absent.

"It's a beautiful case of adapt or perish," Whitten said. "It's a classic case of evolutionary adaptation on islands that would have made Darwin proud -- and envious."

The cricket belongs to a larger group called raspy crickets and appears to be an unusually clever sort, said Chase. It must find its way back to orchids over and over again, suggesting that it has some navigational prowess.

"Most crickets can't do this," Chase told Discovery News. "This cricket is acting more like a bee."

The cricket discovery also alerts botanists to the possibility that there may be other undiscovered pollinators at work right under our noses -- and they should look for them.