They may only be 1.5mm in size, but the tiny wasps that pollinate fig trees can travel over 160km in less than 48 hours, according to research from scientists at the University of Leeds. The fig wasps are transporting pollen ten times further than previously recorded for any insect.
The fig wasps travel these distances in search of trees to lay their eggs, which offers hope that trees pollinated by similar creatures have a good chance of surviving if they become isolated through deforestation.
"Fig trees provide very important food for vertebrates," explains Dr Stephen Compton of the University's Faculty of Biological Sciences. "More birds and animals feed on fig trees than on any other plant in the rainforest. Our research shows that trees pollinated by this type of insect should be very resistant to forest fragmentation."
"Fig wasps are weak flyers," added Dr Compton. "They fly up in an air column and are then carried by wind until they sense host figs at which point they drop close to the ground and hunt out the scent of the tree which is specific to them.
"As adult wasps live for just 48 hours, they must have travelled these distances incredibly fast. It took our field scientists and volunteers nearly two weeks to walk 250km and map the fig trees used in the research."
Using a unique mix of field work and genetic tests, the researchers tracked the movement of pollen between trees and used this as the marker for insect movement.
The trees were DNA tested and seedlings grown from their fruit. Genetic tests on the seedlings enabled the researchers to identify which trees had cross-pollinated. As the trees are only pollinated by the fig wasp Ceratosolen arabicus, the scientists were able to map the distances travelled by the insects.
"This is the first research to identify each individual tree, rather than extrapolate the genetic mix from a sample," said Professor Philip Gilmartin, formerly from Leeds and now at the University of Durham. "We were basically paternity testing trees: we knew which tree was the 'mother' and because we already had the DNA results for the other trees, it was easy to identify the 'father'. It meant we were tracking the route of an individual grain of pollen."
The shortest distance recorded for cross-pollination was 14km and the furthest 164km. Trees were not necessarily pollinated by their nearest neighbour, and some pollen came from unidentified trees, indicating that some insects were travelling even longer distances than those recorded.
The research was part of a PhD studentship carried out by Sophia Ahmed and funded through the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) with additional support from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). The findings are published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
Ralf Richter, David Brockwell, Eric Hewitt, Jessica Kwok, Emanuele Paci and MAPS/FMH, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £600,000
Eric Blair, Adrian Whitehouse, Nicola Stonehouse, Alison Baker, Richard Bayliss, Joan Boyes, Ryan Seipke, Sally Boxall and MAPS/FMH, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £376,000
Stefan Kepinski, Yoselin Benitez-Alfonso, Tom Bennett, Michelle Peckham, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £331,000
Roman Tuma, Lars Jeuken, Paul Millner, Sheena Radford, Peter Stockley and MAPS/FMH, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £222,000
Vas Ponnambalam, Darren Tomlinson, Stephen Wheatcroft, BHF (May 2017), £107,878
Graham Askew in collaboration with Bangor University, BBSRC (Mar 2017), £477,383
Stephen Muench, BBSRC (Mar 2017), £132,945
Nic Stonehouse, MRC (Mar 2017), £906,341
Bill Kunin, Steve Sait, BBSRC (Mar 2017), £602,831
Adrian Goldman, EU (Mar 2017), £546,576
Sheena Radford, Wellcome Trust (Mar 2017), £1,836,482
Beatrice Filippi, Royal Society (Mar 2017), £15,000
Jamie Johnston, Royal Society (Mar 2017), £15,000
Tom Bennett, Royal Society (Mar 2017), £15,000
Ryan Seipke, BBSRC (Feb 2017), £52,116
Mary O'Connell, BBSRC (Feb 2017), £46,986
Hannah Dugdale, NERC (Feb 2017), £504,138
Anastasia Zhuravleva, EPSRC (Jan 2017), £100,792
Richard Bayliss, Cancer Research UK (Jan 2017), £1,600,000
John Barr, EU (Jan 2017), £339,000
Mark Harris, Royal Society (Jan 2017), £250,000
Alison Dunn, NERC (Jan 2017), £105,000
Alex Breeze, Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund (Jan 2017), £180,000
Alison Dunn, NERC (Dec 2016), £18,000
Lisa Collins, BBSRC (Dec 2016), £1,681,835
Brendan Davies, Leverhulme Trust (Dec 2016), £247,555
Alan Benson, Mark Drinkhill, Ed White, British Heart Foundaion (Dec 2016), £217,223
Adrian Goldman, Royal Society (Dec 2016), £82,999
Lisa Roberts, Alex Breeze, Brendan Davies, Timothy Devinney, Oliver Harlen, Joseph Holden, Anthea Hucklesby, Pamela Jones, Philip Mellor, RCUK (Nov 2016), £484,172
Lisa Roberts, Alex Breeze, Brendan Davies, Timothy Devinney, Oliver Harlen, Joseph Holden, Anthea Hucklesby, Pamela Jones, Philip Mellor, Wellcome Trust (Nov 2016), £119,343
Katie Field, Rank Prize Funds (Nov 2016), £20,000
Jessica Kwok, Royal Society (Nov 2016), £14,948
John Ladbury, Cancer Research UK (Oct 2016), £4,250
Miriam Wittmann, Martin Stacey, Edward Vital, Lupus UK
(Oct 2016), £34,010
Valerie Speirs, NC3Rs
(Oct 2016), £90,000
Nicola Stonehouse, Morgan Herod, David Rowlands, BBSRC
(Sep 2016), £436,424
Joseph Cockburn, Wellcome Trust
(Sep 2016), £100,000
John Barr, Public Health England
(Sep 2016), £94,471
Helen Miller, DSM Nutritional Products A/S
(Sep 2016), £54,680
Steven Clapcote, Vitaflo International Ltd
(Sep 2016), £39,285
Juan Fontana Jordan De Urries
, Royal Society
(Sep 2016), £21,793
Jing Li, Sarah Calaghan, Mark Drinkhill, British Heart Foundation
(Sep 2016), £117,585
Sheena Radford, Alison Ashcroft, BBSRC (Sep 2016), £457,216
Patricija Van Oosten-Hawle, An-Jung Chen, David Westhead, NC3Rs
(Sep 2016), £354,456
Glyn Hemsworth, BBSRC (Sep 2016), £1,024,034