Darwin circa 1880
In 1839 Charles Darwin set sail for South America under the command of Captain Robert Fitzroy, Darwin’s political opposite. The boat, the famous Beagle, was hardly equipped for what was planned to be a two year journey, notwithstanding the fact it lasted for five.
On his journey, Darwin wrote copious amounts of notes, and one of his observations was on orchid pollination. His key notes were based on long moth tongues (proboscis) that are used for gathering nectar from orchids, thus carrying pollen and helping to fertilise other orchids. What is interesting is that birds can also be lured to orchids to carry pollen. The African orchid, Disa, contain pollinaria that stick to the feet of certain species of bird.
This interesting and complex co-evolutionary association is known as Ornithophily; subsequent adaptions of co-evolved birds include brushy tongues, long bills and the capacity for hovering flight: hummingbirds and honeycreepers. However, the point is this, and it is an important one, that if birds were to disappear so would a whole host of world flora. Darwin’s genius lay in the realisation that earth’s interrelated ecosystem is balanced through selection in magnificently subtle ways.
In one recent New Zealand-based study, the stitchbird (hihi) was found to be almost extinct. As a consequence of this near-extinction, the Gloxinia bush experienced a rapid decline because fewer stichbirds could pollinate the plants. As the notable Australian ecologist, Matine Maron, said, “it is not just about losing a species from the face of the earth. Losing key species from local areas can result in ecosystem collapse.”
The New Zealand Stitchbird (Notiomystis cincta)