17 Mar 2013

The Amazing Fig Wasp Makes You Ponder Life

Hey there!

Whenever you've had a tasty fig or two, have you ever paused to ponder on big issues like mortality, the cycle of life and - what the heck are those crunchy  bits inside the fig?

The tiny hole at teh bottom of the fruit is  called an ostiole - remember that.
What is the connection between figs, wasps and the more philosophical questions about life, death and purpose?

It's all in the very peculiar and amazing symbiotic relationship between the fig tree and the fig wasp.

When you think of wasps, you're thinking of the black and yellow striped nuisance and pesky cousin of the more benign and lovable bee. In fact, if you were to take a look at the fig wasp, you'd have a hard time telling them apart from a mosquito with the naked eye - not to mention that the males of the species have an odd, wingless worm like appearance. But the destinies of this fascinating insect and the fig tree are intertwined: fig wasps ensure that new fig plants see the light of day and conversely, the fig plant is vital in bringing to life the next generation of fig wasps.

You see, plants like the fig tree rely on pollination to reproduce. Plants hate inbreeding as much as any living thing out there (except maybe denizens of the southern parts of the USA) and plant eggs (situated inside the flower) want pollen that will fertilize them - pollen that preferably comes from another plant. That's where the wasp comes in - and this is where the cycle begins.

A female wasp carries on her body the pollen of the fig fruit it was born in. This girl has a body that's evolved for the job of fitting inside fig fruits and crawling through tiny holes - after she's born, she flies around looking for fig flowers that have not yet been pollinated.

At this stage, the fig fruit only bears a passing resemblance to the thing you eat in tea houses in Morocco. It's a strange lumpy thing called a syconium, with a tiny hole at one end - the ostiole. The female wasp crawls her way into the fruit through this ostiole - barely fitting and losing her wings and antennae along the way. Inside she finds the flowers of the fig tree - tiny, pinhead-sized flowers that never see the light of day. Using her ovipositor, she lays her eggs inside the fig and then finally dies - but life is ready to begin anew for the fig wasp with the eggs the female has just laid.

But what about the fig plant? Well, the female wasp carried pollen from the fig she hatched out of - and as she laid her eggs on some of the fig flowers inside the syconium, she also pollinated some of the other flowers - and these pollinated flowers will produce eggs and new fig plants once the wasps leave and the fruit ripens and ends up on the forest floor.

Meanwhile, inside the syconium - the wasp eggs develop. Males hatch first - these buys boys, unrecognizable as wasps with their worm-like bodies and lack of wings, scurry about looking for girls still sleeping safely inside their eggs.

And then they have sex with them.

Yes - nature isn't short on date rape jokes or weird pedophilia. A male fig wasp's first task in life non-consensual insemination of the still egg-ridden females. If you're thinking his purpose gets grander after that - think again. Promptly taking the privilege to prove males are essentially just the nasty bits around the penis, males chew holes through the fig fruit for the females to escape later on and then very promptly and unceremoniously die. Fig wasp males are completely incapable of surviving outside the fig and their graceless rapey short lives are unceremonious at best, either way.

But such is their lot in life. Soon enough, the girls start hatching from their eggs - more recognizable as wasps - and escape the fruit through the holes dug out by males with their dying breath, without so much as a "thanks". Then they get to work finding an unfertilized fig syconium and the  cycle begins anew.

Thus, the fig and fig wasp life cycles are maintained. How long has this been going on, exactly?

Well - you'd be surprised. Recent archaeological findings prove the point that Nature never fixes something that isn't broken: fossilized 34 million-year-old fig wasps are almost anatomically identical to modern wasps, proving that this tiny insect has remained virtually unchanged for 34 million years - and that probably applies to the entire symbiotic relationship. Better yet - the earliest fossil records of fig plant-fig wasp symbiosis date from 80 million years ago. In fact, In fact, fig trees are pollinated by fig wasps and no other insect. Without fig wasps, there would be no fig trees. And indeed, without the fig trees, there would be no fig wasps.

This 34 million year old fig wasp fossil (top) is practically identical to modern fig wasps (bottom, in scanning electron microscopy), proving that Nature and college students share a thing or two when it comes to procrastination.

What about the ponderous philosophical questions I briefly mentioned at the beginning of this article?

Well, after you've read all the above information, there are a few things that should be dawning on you by know. Number one, the crunchy bits in the fig are both seeds and wasps. Tiny, unhatched, squirming wasps whose screams of pain echo down your esophagus.

Ew. Yes those are both fig seeds and wasps inside.
If  you want more action shots, try this opening of a ripe fig for size:

Secondly, the life cycle of the fig wasp is such a shorthand cliche it would probably make even misogynistic humorists cringe. The male's purpose and indeed ultimate destiny in life is to bone - to bone like there's no tomorrow (which, for the fig wasp, is sadly very likely) even if  you have to bone unconscious little girls (no, I don't endorse that, but pedophilia and college drunk-rape are still a thing) and then spend the remainder of your life regretting said impregnation and literally exhausting every ounce of life inside you so that females have all their nagging selves need - even though, for the wasp, it's just a really big hole in the fig fruit.

Boning - the purpose of life as we know it.
As for the female - let's face it. Her tale practically begins with nursery rape and continues to her allotted fate or pure procreation. Her only purpose is to get boned by giant wasp dongs and find a nice little place to settle down, lose her wings, lay her eggs and die. The metaphor is scary, but has anyone of you ever spoken to a married, child-rearing woman? There's a lot of metaphorical and not-so-metaphorical wing loss going on there as well as a practical end-of-life narrowly dissimulated by her broad topics of conversation that include her kid(s), her kid's boring little feats and mishaps, her kid's poo, her exhaustion and total dedication to her kids and I think that just about covers it. Child-rearing is a transformation with no upside and no takey-backsies.

But there's more. When you think about the 80-million-year-old love story between figs and wasps you start to realize our significance as a species - or lack thereof, especially considering that time scale. I mean, 34 million years is nothing - crocodiles have practically remained the same for 55 million years ago, with fossil crocodiles that are anatomically strikingly close to modern crocs (and I use that term loosely since they've barely evolved in these past tens of millions of years) dating as far back as the Triassic (250 million years ago). Sharks have been around for 300 million years. By comparison, the splitting between hominids and chimpanzees occurred about 4 million years ago. Humans reached anatomical modernity 200,000 years ago and only began to exhibit full behavioral modernity 50,000 years ago. Compared to the anatomical modernity of fig wasps, we're an afterthought - they've been along for at least 700 times as long on this planet as we have. At least. Which is 700 times more time to mock us with heir caricatures of human life and destiny and silly little crunchy bits filling up our tasty figs.

Man, Nature's such a bitch. You can't enjoy one single tropical fruit properly without being reminded of the ubiquitous cycle of life and death and our ultimate and simplified destinies as mere facilitators and slaves of reproduction.

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