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Which came first, the moth or the cactus?

HOUSTON, Aug. 13, 2007 It's not a good idea to put all your eggs in one basket unless you're a senita moth.

Found in the parched Sonoran desert of southern Arizona and northern Mexico, the senita moth depends on a single plant species -- the senita cactus -- both for its food and for a place to lay eggs. The senita cactus is equally dependent upon the moth, the only species that pollinates its flowers. Senita cacti and senita moths have a rare, mutually dependent relationship, one of only three known dependencies in which an insect actively pollinates flowers for the purpose of assuring a food resource for its offspring.

"Mutualistic relationships like this present a problem for ecological theory," said Rice University ecologist Nat Holland, who co-discovered the senita moth-senita cactus mutualism in 1995 and has studied it ever since.

The problem is that the moths lay their eggs inside the cacti's flowers immediately after pollination, and when the eggs hatch the moth larvae eat the fruit, destroying the flowers' chances to produce seeds. Historic theory predicts extreme ecological instability for this relationship; as moth populations increase, more flowers are destroyed, fewer new cacti appear, and the spiral continues until both species disappear.

Yet that hasn't happened, and Holland, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, spends several months each year observing moths and cacti in the Mexican desert to document why.

Holland, whose lab is just a few steps down the hall from his Houston office, jokes that his "real" lab is 1,500 miles away. He's studied senita at several locations in the Sonoran Desert, including the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in southern Arizona. But his primary site for more than a decade is a desolate, 30-acre patch of desert straddling three ranches near Bahia de Kino on the Gulf of California. Holland said he and his students sometimes go weeks without seeing
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Contact: Jade Boyd
jadeboyd@rice.edu
713-348-6778
Rice University
13-Aug-2007


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