Plant Evolves To Resemble Rocky Debris To Become Less Visible To Humans

Fritillaria delavayi is a perennial herb with 3 or 5 leaves – varying in color from grey to brown to green – closely arranged along the stem, living on rocky slopes of China’s Hengduan mountains. As the leaves die off at the end of the short summer, the plant survives the long winter months by developing an underground bulb. After five years, the plant produces a single yellow flower.

In a paper published in the journal Current Biology, Chinese botanists describe a curious case of natural selection of this species driven by humans. In the study, the researchers measured how closely plants from different populations of Fritillaria delavayi match their mountain environment and how easy they were to collect, and spoke to local people to estimate how much harvesting took place in each location.

The superficial visible parts of the plant are poisonous and large herbivors, like wild sheep and goats, avoid eating them. However, the bulb of the species has been used in Chinese medicine for more than 2,000 years, and high prices in recent years have led to increased harvesting.

On hard to access sites rarely visited by collectors, the plant possesses green leaves and displays the common yellow flower of naturally occurring populations. On sites frequently visited by collectors, the entire plant resembles the color of the surrounding rocky underground. In many cases, the camouflage is perfect, the leaves of the plant matching the color and texture of shards of schist, a slate-like metamorphic rock common in the area.

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