By Sam Burbach, Education & Programming Coordinator – 06/26/2020

This week we’ve talked about most all of our flying pollinators, but we still haven’t covered all pollinators! Not all pollinators have wings! While non-flying mammals and reptiles do not make up the largest group of pollinators, they are some of the largest pollinators in size.

Mammals

Mammals who provide pollination services are primarily primates, rodents, and marsupials, and help pollinate around 85 plant species worldwide. Mammals who pollinate plants are also nectar-seekers and can help pollinate plants that have difficult to access flowers. In Madagascar, the island off the coast of Africa, one plant with a very difficult flower to pollinate is the Traveler’s Palm. These trees (not true palms) can be 40-feet tall and the flowers stay tightly closed within tough green bracts. It takes a very specialized pollinator to pry open the flowers that have a large store of nectar, and these pollinators are lemurs (did anyone else start singing “I like to move it, move it” in their head?! Sorry). The Black-and-White Ruffled Lemur carries out most of the pollination of the Traveler’s Palm, however, other lemur species have helped as well. These lemurs climb up in the tree, open up the flower, which resembles their relative bird of paradise, and have to push their muzzle into the flower to get to the nectar, this results in their face being covered in pollen which will get brushed off onto the stigma of the same and/or next flower. These lemurs are considered the largest pollinators!

Honey bees are not the only pollinator to actively seek out nectar and pollen from flowers. Honey Possums, indigenous to southwest Australia, are the world’s only marsupial that are nectivorous, eating only nectar and pollen from flowering plants. These tiny creatures have a prehensile tale that can grip onto branches, helping them move through vegetation and even hang upside down to reach flowers. They have a long snout and very long tongue to help them access nectar stores within flowers. Honey possums need nectar year-round so they feed on a wide variety of flowers and therefore pollinate a lot of species, including banksias, eucalypts, and heath.

Southern ruffed lemur (Photograph by Steig Johnson)

Travellers Palm Flower (Photograph by Pratheep P S, www.pratheep.com)

The anatomy of the Travellers Palm flower. (American Journal of Botany)

A Honey Possum enjoying habitat on Monjebup North. (Photograph by Angela Sanders, Bush Heritage Australia)

Reptiles

It is believed that around 40 reptile species, such as lizards, geckos, and skinks, can help pollinate flowers as well. The Noronha Skink from the island of Fernando de Noronha off the coast of Brazil drinks the nectar from the Mulunga Tree. The source of nectar is important to the skink since the tree blooms during the dry season. While drinking the nectar, pollen may get stuck to the skink’s scales and get brushed off when they visit the next flower.

A little over a year ago in April 2019, researchers from South Africa and the Netherlands discovered that the Drakensberg Crag Lizard helps pollinate a group of “Hidden Flowers” from the Guthriea genus in the Molati-Drakensberg World Heritage Site in South Africa. These small flowers on the ground are hidden under the leaves of plants. The researchers expected that they would be pollinated by rodents and shrews, so they were surprised to find lizards drinking the sweet nectar from the flowers! They furthered their study to make sure that the lizards were actually carrying off pollen and found that when lizards were experimentally excluded from the plants, seed production dropped by almost 95%. This exciting discovery shows the importance of this Drakensberg Crag Lizard for these Hidden Flowers and also marks the first lizard pollinator for continental Africa!

The Noronha skink. (Photograph by Jim Skea, Creative Commons)

In Brazil, the flowers of a Mulungu tree can be pollinated by the Noronha skink. (Photograph by Tatiana Gerus, Creative Commons​)

A Drakensberg Crag Lizard (Pseudocordylis subviridis) licking nectar from the “Hidden Flowers” of Guthriea capensis in a terrarium. (Photograph by Ruth Cozien & Steve Johnson, Botany One)

Additional Resources:

Unusual Animal Pollinators: U.S. Forest Service

The Traveler’s Palm: In Defense of Plants

Honey Possums: Bush Heritage Australia

Little dragons with a sweet tooth pollinate the mysterious “Hidden Flower”: Botany One