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Ecologists make their own flowers to study moths

Thanks to JSTOR Global Plants for pointing to an interesting paper in Functional Ecology, Shape matters: corolla curvature improves nectar discovery in the hawkmoth Manduca sexta.

Hawkmoth, Manduca sexta
Hawkmoth, Manduca sexta. Photo by Pondhawk/Flickr

The research looks at how the the 3D structure of a flower helps guide hawkmoths towards nectar. Scents and sight can guide a pollinator, but to what extent does the physical form aid a visitor? Campos et al. compared trumpet-shaped flowers against flatter flowers. There’s quite a few ideas of how the mechanical properties of a flower work with pollinators. There’s the shape, and also the internal structure such as grooves in the interior that can act as guides. What is significant and what is not?

The Campos paper is novel because they have found a way to control for these features. Actually finding flowers with all the relevant factors controlled for would either be near impossible or else very impossible. Instead the team printed them.

I hadn’t thought at all about 3D printing for Botany, until I listened to to documentary on 3D Bioprinting, a couple of weeks ago (BBC Radio, available worldwide). In fact flowers seem to be just one of many things that botanists could use 3D printing for.

3D Printed flowers
Photo: Armin Hinterworth

The ‘flowers’ look very minimalist interpretations of flowers, so people who know more about the mechanics of flowers than me can debate to what extent the approximation is useful. In many ways the simplistic shapes give very clear parameters that can be tested. Another feature is that they’re monochrome. This is because of the limitations of 3D printing. The shapes are built from layers of plastic and each layer has its own colour, so it may well be a limitation for a while yet.

As well as demonstrating that botanists can make physical structures and vary them to test hypotheses, 3D printing also bodes well for replication. A factor in replicating experiments is the equipment. How trumpet-shaped is trumpet shape? Having a stored plan means that other scientists could download and run their own variations on published experiments.

I’m now wondering what could happen if you could combine TreeSketch with 3D Printing.


Campos E.O., Bradshaw Jr H.D. & Daniel T.L. (2015). Shape matters: corolla curvature improves nectar discovery in the hawkmoth Manduca sexta, Functional Ecology, 29 (4) 462-468. DOI: 10.1111/1365-2435.12378

Written by Alun Salt

Alun is the Producer for Botany One. It's his job to keep the server running. He's not a botanist, but started running into them on a regular basis while working on writing modules for an Interdisciplinary Science course and, later, helping teach mathematics to Biologists. His degrees are in archaeology and ancient history.

  • Hello, this is Octavio Campos, the lead author on this 3D-printed flower paper (I go by my middle name in day-to-day life). Thank you for this wonderful write-up! In response to a few issues that are brought up here:

    color limitations: We were fortunate in that night-blooming flowers that are typically visited by hawkmoths tend to be white, and that is the only color that our model of 3D printer can print in. But other 3D printers are available that print in different colors (red, green, blue, even hot pink) if someone was interested in that. And the latest generation of printers can even print out multi-colored objects! But of course, these are more expensive than monochrome machines.

    simplistic interpretation of flower form: You are correct that our artificial flowers are extremely simplistic, and you are also correct that this simplicity gives clear parameters that can be tested! We decided to only make the flowers as complex as necessary to test our questions. But we can make the flowers more “realistic” by adding more shape parameters to our shape equation! For example, we can add petals (and alter the number of petals), bilateral symmetry, and rotation of the flower’s face relative to the nectar tube. In general, the shape equation will get more complex as the flower that you want print increases in complexity. I would love to come up with a shape equation that accurately reproduces the variation seen in the orchid family!

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