Pollination's evolution: aquatic origin?

Newly discovered: a crustacean that pollinates algae

(NYTimes article)


They really managed to spoof the press, at least. This is in many channels, but:

  1. It is NOT pollination. Pollination only occur where there is pollen, right? Only in seed plants (which are primarily terrestrial), a large portion of which are wind pollinated.
  2. Pollination is the transfer of whole gametophytes (inside the pollen). What this crustacean does is potentially helping to transfer male gametes only.
  3. So as a case of animals facilitating fertilization it is of course interesting, albeit an obvious paralellism that has nothing to do with the evolution of pollination.
  4. This is something someone came up with as a publicity stunt and as such it was clearly successful, but thinking about evolution in this specific way, without taking phylogeny into account, actually muddles our understanding of evoultion.

Yes, I should have put some quote marks there as the article does a relatively decent job (I thought) of making the distinction clear.

Do you think it’s sensational and overstating of them to suggest that this newly discovered animal-assisted cross-fertilization by the algae might have evolved before terrestrial pollination?

It is sensationalist to state that and not to include what Dr. Valero actually said:

“It may be possible that the relationship between seaweed and animals predates the evolution of the animal-plant relationship,” said Dr. Valero, who acknowledged that this hypothesis could not yet be proven. Another possibility, she said, was that animal-mediated fertilization strategies evolved independently and repeatedly in the terrestrial and marine environment.

It’s proposed as a possibility, but one that remains just that, a possibility, and there are other equally valid possibilities.


This is deeper in the phylogenetic tree (and very interesting in its own right), but increased transfer of sperm by thrips etc. has been demonstrated for a while in mosses and more recently in ferns. Pollination is interested not so much because it’s sui generis but because of the high degree of mutual interaction and diversification associated with it.

I don’t see any spoofing of the media going on here. But, no offence @broacher, I think the title of your post “Pollination’s evolution: aquatic origin” doesn’t reflect what is discussed in the articles themselves. It’s a misinterpretation, implying that plant pollination originated from red algae “pollination”–which it didn’t because plants did not evolve from red algae. The article simply states:

“This is such a profoundly fascinating study that really shakes up our understanding of how seaweeds reproduce,” said Jeff Ollerton, a visiting professor at the Kunming Institute of Botany in China who was not involved with the study but co-wrote a perspective article that accompanied the study in Science on Thursday. “This type of interaction may have been going on long before plants ever evolved and using a third party for reproduction may have much deeper roots than we ever realized — if you’ll excuse the pun.”

The authors are using the word pollination here because it’s the closest term available. It’s like behavioral ecologists using the term “personality” for individual differences in behavior of non-human animals. Since dogs aren’t persons, they can’t technically have personalities (yet that is the commonly used term in ethology–albeit with some controversy). There isn’t (yet) a term for “animal-assisted movement of gametes facilitating fertilization”, so the authors either needed to have invented one or other people need to be OK with expanding the definition of pollination–just like we use the term personality more broadly.

I don’t see the media article as being sensational in the least.

This summary of their work in Science seems to define pollination incorrectly, though


Really interesting find!

Among land plants, insect pollination evolved from wind pollination. This thing going on with seaweeds in the ocean is a whole separate, apparently parallel issue. No less cool for that!

Interestingly, in flowering plants wind pollination appears to have evolved after animal pollination.

Flowering plants appear to have taken advantage of pre-existing animal pollinators that assisted gymnosperms.

It’s a bit unclear what the original gymnosperm pollination process was, but there is interesting evidence of animal pollination some 320-300 million years ago, in the form of gymnosperm pollen grains that appear to be too large for effective wind pollination.


Interesting about the possible early origin of animal pollination in vascular plants!

This topic was automatically closed 60 days after the last reply. New replies are no longer allowed.