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Scientists uncover strange 'chameleon' plant that changes leaf structure based on surroundings

Plant mimicry

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(NaturalNews) Animals aren't the only species able to mimic the behaviors and even appearances of other animals, suggests a new study published in the peer-reviewed journal Cell. A woody vine native to the rainforests of South America, known as Boquila trifoliolata, possesses an incredible natural ability to transform its leaves to match the shape, size and even texture of leaves from other plants, the amazing discovery of a research duo out of Chile.

We've all heard the phrase "stop and smell the roses," a simple way of telling someone to slow down and take in the natural world around them that often goes unnoticed. Well, this is how biology professor Ernesto Gianoli and his student Fernando Carrasco-Urra came across Boquila for the first time. Gianoli, after taking a break from his work to go on a simple walk, came across the unusual shrub which was growing two completely different stems.

Noticing that one of the stems was significantly thinner than the other, Gianoli carefully examined the plant and discovered that both vines were somehow from the same plant. Upon further investigation, he learned that the vine had a varying growth pattern and different leaves depending on its location, a fact that later turned out to be a product of Boquila's chameleon-like tendencies.

"It was astonishing," stated Gianoli to National Geographic. "I was familiar with the vine but I had not noticed this feature before. I walked back to the hut where the rest of my team was waiting, and told my undergraduate student Fernando Carrasco-Urra, 'Do you want to be famous? I've got the idea for your thesis.' Of course, they mocked me."

Boquila the only known plant to mimic multiple other leaf species

But the mocking didn't last for long, as the team quickly uncovered some truths about Boquila that were previously unknown. Not only can the plant mimic the leaves of other plants almost down to a T, but the same occurrence of a Boquila vine can mimic multiple other plants depending on what portions of it are in proximity to other plants.

"When the vine climbs onto a tree's branches, its versatile leaves can change their size, shape, color, orientation, and even the vein patterns to match the surrounding foliage," explains Science. "It is a rare quality--known as a mimetic polymorphism--that was previously observed only in butterflies."

How Boquila accomplishes this feat is still anyone's guess, and will likely be the subject of further research on this fascinating plant. But Gianoli believes the reason why Boquila mimics other plants is to sidestep plant-eaters and other predators, for which blending in with other plants was found to produce substantial protection.

Boquila thrives best when mimicking other host plants

According to the study, when the integrity of Boquila leaves growing inside other plants, and of course mimicking them, was compared to Boquila leaves growing on the ground or on leafless trunks, the latter were found to be 33 percent and 100 percent more worse off, respectively. Overall, Boquila was found to thrive better when it latches onto a host rather than grows on its own.

"Even orchids, the world's best known plant mimics, just mimic one specific model, or just share the general appearance of several similar flowers," said Anne Gaskett from the University of Aukland, as quoted by Popular Science. "This vine seems to mimic many specific models, depending on its host--something we've previously only seen in animals."

You can view a summary of the study here:

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