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No. 70: Jul-Aug 1990

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Killer Bamboos

There are more than 500 species of bamboo. Together, they have conspired - in a vegetative way - to exterminate the pandas. Why pick on such a cute, lovable animal? Pandas, you see, eat nothing but bamboos; and the bamboos have had enough! The bamboos' strategy is to flower only once in a lifetime. When the appointed time arrives for each species, all plants of the species all over the world flower simultaneously. The various species flower at intervals of 15, 30, 60, or 120 years. (These 15-year multiples and the unknown clocks that determine them are anomalies in themselves.) After a species flowers, all plants die, leaving the fate of the species to a thick carpet of seeds. Until the next flowering, it will extend its domain via vegetative reproduction only. Ten years will pass before the bamboos have grown enough to be a viable pan-da food source. The pandas' only hope is to find a species of bamboo that did not flower.

It is hard to think of a plant as malevolent, but here is how P. Shipman describes the situation:

"Green and slender, deceptively innocent-looking, it spreads out slowly, year by year, until it has its victims surrounded. Meanwhile the pandas, poor patsies, are eating out of the bamboo's hand. Only when the pandas are well and truly dependent on it does the bamboo deal its coup de grace. It flowers and seeds, thus ensuring its own survival as a species. And then, in an act of sweet self-sacrifice, it dies, taking its archenemy with it."

If the pandas manage to survive after the 15-year bamboos have had a try at death-by-death, a time will come when 15- and 30-year bamboos will flow er simultaneously. In the mid-1970s, several species, with different periodicities, all flowered simultaneously in China. The panda population was decimated.

(Shipman, Pat; "Killer Bamboo," Discover, 12:22, February 1990. Cr. R. Dorion.)

The pandas may be saved by the human-conceived strategem of feeding plant hormones to bamboo shoots. Researchers in the lab have been able to break the lockstep bamboo cycle in this manner.

(Johnson, Julie; "Hormonal Clue to Bamboo's Elusive Blossomings," New Scientist, p. 31, March 31, 1990.)

Comment. The panda, it seems is not without its own evolutionary strategy. By evolving into a cute, cuddly, teddybear, it has so enthralled a third species, that this more advanced (?) life form has found a way to save the panda from its cyclic dilemma via science!

From Science Frontiers #70, JUL-AUG 1990. � 1990-2000 William R. Corliss