Plantwatch: staghorn ferns – the plants that form colonies like bees
Staghorn ferns are spectacular plants with fronds that look like antlers, and make very attractive houseplants. One particular species, Platycerium bifurcatum, grows on Lord Howe Island in Australia and lives in colonies of hundreds of individuals.
A recent study found that these plants cooperate with each other, rather like a colony of ants or bees. The ferns in a colony come in different sizes, shapes and textures but fit together like jigsaw pieces and collaborate with each other to store water and nutrients for the whole colony – especially important because the plants grow high up on trees without soil or much water.
Ferns with long green fronds deflect rainwater to the centre of the colony where plants with brown spongy fronds soak up the moisture and nutrients, then pass this on to all the colony members using a network of roots. This level of collaboration has never been seen before in plants and is remarkably like the cooperation seen in colonies of social insects such as ants or bees. And just like the division of fertility among these creatures, some 40% of the staghorn ferns don’t reproduce – mostly the ones with brown fronds – and DNA analysis also revealed that most colonies consist of genetically identical individuals.