Science Briefs: How butterflies pollinate azaleas; cotton genetics, Twitter data and insomnia

A great spangled fritillary pollinates a flame azalea.
A great spangled fritillary pollinates a flame azalea. James Madison University

NCSU: And this is how we get azalea flowers

N.C. State biologist Mary Jane Epps, working with biologists from James Madison University and from South Africa, has identified the key pollinator for flame azaleas – the large-flowered variety found in the Appalachians from New York to Georgia. “In order for a plant to reproduce, a pollinator – usually an insect – has to spread the pollen from the anther to the stigma,” Epps said. “In the case of the flame azalea, the distance between these two structures meant that it was unlikely for a bee or other small pollinator to come into contact with both anther and stigma during a visit.”

Scientists found that butterflies were crucial – especially their wings. Butterflies are much larger than other pollinators and also frequent azaleas.

They also noticed that the pollen was most likely being transferred by butterflies’ wings – not their bodies. “We observed two species of butterfly that frequented these flowers: the eastern tiger swallowtail and the great spangled fritillary. However, the majority of the butterflies were the swallowtails, who differ from the fritillaries because they tend to keep moving their wings even when gathering nectar from a flower,” Epps said.

The findings, reported in American Naturalist, suggest that some plants may be dependent on very few insect species for pollination, even when many species visit the flowers and contact the male or female flower parts.

Clemson scientist helps decode Upland cotton genetics

Chris Saski, director of Clemson University’s Genomics and Computational Biology Laboratory, was on the international team of scientists that recently decoded the intricately woven genetic makeup of Upland cotton.

Saski participated in sequencing the genome, which is a crucial stepping-stone toward further advancements of understanding the inner workings of the most complex and ancient plant.

Upland cotton came into existence more than a million years ago when two separate species hybridized, creating a plant that has multiple genomes. Unlike humans, who have two sets of chromosomes (from a mother and a father), the Upland cotton genome is configured with four sets.

The genome sequence, reported in the scientific journal Nature Biotechnology, can be used to provide the know-how to engineer superior lines of cotton.

Twitter data helps profile Tweeters with sleep disorders

Researchers from Boston Children’s Hospital and Merck have built the beginnings of “digital phenotype” of insomnia and other sleep disorders based on data from Twitter. The study, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, looks at relationships between social media use and sleep issues, and – based on assessments the sentiments expressed in users’ tweets – gives preliminary hints that patients with sleep disorders may be a greater risk of psychosocial issues.

The researchers used publically available anonymized data from Twitter users whose tweets contained sleep-related words (like “can't sleep,” “insomnia”) or hashtags (like #cantsleep, #teamnosleep), or the names of common sleep aids or medications.

The resulting profile of a Twitter user with sleep issues – compared to a Twitter user without? They’ve been active on Twitter for a relatively long time but posts few tweets per day on average, have fewer followers and follow fewer people, are more active on Twitter between 6 p.m. and 5:59 a.m.; they are more likely to post tweets with negative sentiment.