seagrass and crustacean pollinators

Bees work tirelessly to feed their colony, and they work very hard! For example, a typical bee can and usually does carry about 35% of its own body weight in pollen for every trip to the flower garden. And bees need to work hard because one colony can contain about 20,000 bees. Bees also play an essential role to Earth’s ecosystem by helping maintain plant populations through pollination (the transferring of pollen to female flowers). But what about plants that live in our oceans, how do these plants pollinate?

Surprisingly, it appears that the ocean may have its own type of “bee!” Scientists have recently discovered that there are tiny crustaceans that collect pollen much like bees do and help spread the pollen to female flowers. The discovery was caught on video by researchers at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

It was previously believed that turtle-grass pollinated with the help of water currents. However, the UNAM video showed a bloom of tiny crustaceans floating past the camera lens and landing on turtle-grass flowers. Scientists then noticed that the crustaceans collected pollen on their small bodies as they ate the pollen off of male flowers. The crustaceans would then land on female flowers and transfer the pollen as they swam from plant to plant. Here is another video to illustrate this behavior:

Scientists conducted an experiment to test the new discovery. Turtle-grass was placed in two separate aquariums. One was filled with seawater that contained the crustaceans, the other was filled with seawater without crustaceans. Pollen quickly appeared on female flowers inside the tank with the crustaceans, while the flowers in the control tank did not show any pollen transfer.

Scientists have not linked the pollinating crustaceans to the population of other marine plants. But they believe that this discovery may give us a deeper understanding of the life cycle of seagrass. This is important because seagrass is vital to underwater ecosystems: seagrasses serve as a food source for many sea creatures, and their roots also protect the seafloor from soil erosion.

This new discovery could help scientists protect ecosystems by cultivating seagrass in target areas. For instance, coral reefs are fragile habitats that need specific conditions to thrive in. Marine plants helps stabilize the water conditions for coral reefs by filtering nutrients and sediment. Scientists might be able to use pollinating crustaceans to increase populations of seagrass in coral reefs with depleted numbers of plants.

May 28, 2017

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