In 2013, during a quiet walk in a forest in Chile, botanist Ernesto Gianoli came across a common shrub, a plant he had seen for the umpteenth time in his career. But this day, something unusual caught his eye. A botanist in the forest is like a collector at a flea market: senses on the alert, looking for something that everyone else has missed. Looking closely, Gianoli noticed the leaves did not belong to the shrub in question but to a climber that was growing around it. The climber was a Boquila trifolioata, but its leaves were strikingly similar to those of the shrub it was climbing. What he found left him speechless: on every shrub or tree around which it grew, the B. trifolioata mimicked the leaves of the “host” every time and with great skill. B. trifolioata can change its size, shape, color, orientation, and even the vein patterns to match the surrounding foliage. It can even mimic more than one plant at a time. B. trifolioata doesn’t even have to touch the plant to copy its foliage. No other examples of mimicry in plants or animals involve near simultaneous changing of the shape, size and color of the organism’s body.
Observing the phenomenon, however, is only the beginning of the story. Some of the most important questions raised by the B. trifolioata behavior are how and why. The why is fairly straight-forward. These special abilities probably evolved as a means of self-preservation. Why not copy another plants leaves’ in the hope that the herbivores will be fooled and leave you alone?
What is more a mystery is how B. trifolioata does it. A solution has come forward that maybe the vine has some sort of visual capacity. It has been shown that plants are able to perceive images in the cells of their epidermis. The epidermis of a plant is convex like a lens and could conceivably convey the images of surrounding plants to the underlying cellular layer. Our understanding of plant ecology has confirmed that plants are capable of processing information about their neighbors, both above and below ground.