Scientific Backstory On A Holiday Tradition’s Key Material

A recent analysis challenges the hypothesis that songbirds helped with a vital step in mistletoe evolution, the move from the ground to the treetops. Fabrice Cahez/Nature Picture Library/Alamy

Cara Giaimo, as ever providing surprising explanations of natural phenomena, has this biology lesson for a holiday tradition:

How Did Mistletoe Get Into the Treetops?

Before someone hung it up in your home, some animal had to get it into the canopies where it thrives to this day.

It’s unclear what trendsetter first hung up mistletoe. Some blame the ancient Greeks, who kissed under the plants during harvest festivals. Others pin it on first-century druids, who might have decorated their homes with them for good luck.

But we may have to look even farther back. A paper published in The American Naturalist this month presents new potential culprits: tiny, prehistoric primates and marsupials, who might have first brought the plants — or at least their seeds — high up into forest canopies over 55 million years ago.

Almost all of the world’s mistletoe species live in the branches of trees or shrubs, where they glom on to their hosts via root-like structures and siphon off water and minerals. They use the energy they get to grow showy, colorful flowers, and to drop nutritious leaves with abandon.

You could call this parasitism — but you could also call it being the life of the party. Well-turned-out mistletoe plants attract a panoply of critters, from bees and other insects that pollinate their flowers, to mammals and birds who live in their branches. They are “the center of attention in many terrestrial systems,” said David Watson, a professor of ecology at Charles Sturt University in New South Wales, Australia and author of the new paper.

Songbirds especially like to gorge on mistletoe berries. It’s thought that prehistoric songbirds helped mistletoes travel the world and land in different kinds of hosts, where they eventually diversified into the hundreds of species that exist today. It was also hypothesized that songbirds helped with a vital step in mistletoe evolution: the move from the ground — where mistletoe ancestors parasitized the roots of other plants — up into the treetops where they tap into branches instead…

Read the whole article here.

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