A plant used in Chinese traditional medicine seemingly camouflages to hide from people in heavily harvested areas.

Iran PressIran News: The usually bright green plants often stand alone amid the jumbled scree that tops the Himalayan and Hengduan mountains in southwestern China — easy pickings for traditional Chinese medicine herbalists, who’ve ground the bulbs of wild Fritillaria into a popular cough-treating powder for more than 2,000 years. The demand for bulbs is intense, since about 3,500 of them are needed to produce just one kilogram of the powder, worth about $480.

But some Fritillaria are remarkably difficult to find, with living leaves and stems that are barely distinguishable from the gray or brown rocky background. Surprisingly, this plant camouflage seems to have evolved in response to people. Fritillaria delavayi from regions that experience greater harvesting pressure are more camouflaged than those from less harvested areas, researchers report November 20 in Current Biology, Science News reported.

The new study “is quite convincing,” says Julien Renoult, an evolutionary biologist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research in Montpellier who wasn’t involved in the study. “It’s a nice first step toward demonstrating that humans seem to be driving the very rapid evolution of camouflage in this species.”

At seven study sites, local herbalists had noted the total weight of bulbs harvested each year from 2014 to 2019. These records provided a measure of contemporary harvesting pressure. To estimate further back in time, the researchers assessed the ease of harvesting by recording how long it took to dig up bulbs at six of those sites, plus an additional one. On some slopes, bulbs are easily dug up, but in others, they can be buried under stacks of rocks. “Intuitively, areas, where it’s easier to harvest, should have experienced more harvesting pressure” over time, sensory ecologist Martin Stevens of the University of Exeter in England says. 

Both measures revealed a striking pattern: The more harvested, or harvestable, a site, the better the color of a plant matched its background, as measured by a spectrometer. “The degree of correlation was really, really convincing for both metrics we used,” Stevens says.

Hiding in plain sight may present some challenges for the plant. Pollinators might have a harder time finding camouflaged plants, and the gray and brown coloration could impair photosynthetic activity. Still, despite those potential costs, these F. delavayi show just how adaptable plants can be, Steven says. “The appearance of plants is much more malleable than we might have expected.”

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