Strange New 'Chameleon' Vine Mysteriously Camouflages Leaves To Match Those Around It

By Ben Wolford on April 25, 2014 1:56 PM EDT

Researchers have discovered a vine that morphs its leaves to match the leaves around it. No one knows how it works. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Researchers have discovered a vine that morphs its leaves to match the leaves around it. No one knows how it works. (Photo: Shutterstock)

A plant in Chile and Argentina has the ability to change the size, shape, and color of its leaves to match the leaves around it. It's a defense mechanism to ward of leaf-eating bugs. But it begs an obvious question: How does the plant know what the leaves around it look like?

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Right now, the smartest botanists in the world don't have a clue. But they're working on it. The new species is a vine that grows in South American temperate rainforests and has been named Boquila trifoliolata. It climbs the trunks of trees and then morphs its leaves to look like the leaves of its host. As if that's not crazy enough, if the same vine weaves around multiple tree species, it can disguise different segments of its length to match the leaves nearby.

"My god that's incredible!" wrote one astounded Reddit user. "Memetic polymorphism... Makes you wonder, what's the mechanism by which the plant detects the shape of it's host's leaves? Shadow patterns on it's own leaves?" Decent guess, considering the vine camouflages to fit in with whatever leaf is closest and doesn't camouflage when no leaves are nearby.

But no, definitely not shadows. Turns out, the vines replicate their hosts' leaves with remarkable detail, right down to the veins. "We currently lack a mechanistic explanation for this unique phenomenon," wrote the two Chilean authors of a paper published in Current Biology. Whatever's doing it probably has to do with one of two things: genetics or magic. Scientists are leaning toward genetics.

Right now, they have two leading theories. The first involves something called volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. These are chemicals found in paint and new building materials. They're the things that create "new car smell." But VOCs are naturally produced, too, and scientists have seen evidence that plant receptors pick up on them and react. They could cause, for example, "increased expression of defense-related genes."

The second theory is "perhaps less plausible," they write. It involves a phenomenon called horizontal gene transfer. This, too, is mysterious. It happens when one organism suddenly acquires the DNA of another. When bacteria grow resistant to drugs, they're doing it because of horizontal gene transfer. Lately, more botanists are finding that this happens in more complex organisms, including plants. In one recent study, scientists linked the survival of ferns to the acquisition of new genetic safeguards millions of years ago. But no one knows how horizontal gene transfer in plants works.

Somehow, genetic information is infiltrating the cellular nucleus of B. trifoliolata to help it avoid being beetle lunch. Is there a chemical these vines can sense that we can't? What's the messenger? "Further research," the authors say, "on leaf mimicry by B. trifoliolata might lead to the identification of the host tree volatiles or vector-mediated gene transfers that trigger differential gene expression in this singular climbing plant."

Above photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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