When it comes to camouflage, chameleons are famous for being able to change colors to match their background, but they’re not necessarily the best in the animal kingdom. Cuttlefish and the mimic octopus are top color-shifters underwater and white crab spiders can change to match the leaves they’re hiding on. But what about the leaves themselves? Is there a chrysanthemum chameleon?
Researchers Ernesto Gianoli and Fernando Carrasco-Urra report in Current Biology that they’ve found the first plant that can change colors and shape on demand, even mimicking multiple plants at once. The vine is called the Boquila trifoliolata and is native to Chile and Argentina.
Boquila trifoliolata is the first known plant to exhibit mimetic polymorphism – the ability to impersonate multiple different host plants. Gianoli and Carrasco-Urra found examples of the vine climbing a tree and having its leaves assume the size, shape, color, orientation and vein patterns of the host. Even more impressive, when the vine stretched over multiple distinct plants, its parts assumed the patterns of the plant each was nearest to. Once the vine was growing on its own or on a leafless tree, all of its leaves returned to being the same shape and color.
Does the shape-and-color-shifting of the Boquila trifoliolata fool its natural enemies – weevils and leaf beetles? These herbivores depend on both sight and smell to find their favorite foliage. The researchers found that the insects ate less of the vine when it assumed the color and shape of a leafy tree it was climbing than when it was on a leafless tree or a non-plant like a wall or plant stake.
The real, and as yet unanswered, question is how the Boquila trifoliolata pulls off the quick change, since it’s able to do it without actually touching the host. The researchers plan to test for odors, organic compounds or microbes emitted from the host that trigger the genetic changes in the vine.
Once the secret is unlocked, watch for some GMO company to develop a spray to make broccoli assume the color and shape of macaroni-and-cheese and make a fortune on parents of finicky kids.