Octavio Campos: Fake flowers foster fantastic fortuity for further fact-finding

Fake flowers foster fantastic fortuity for further fact-finding - Or: a cool paper on 3D-printed flowers and what it means for the field of plant-pollinator interactions

A hawkmoth. Photo by Armin Hinterwirth.

A few weeks ago (on April 15th, to be exact), my first paper based on my PhD dissertation project came out for publication in the journal Functional Ecology!  The paper documents my early findings into how flower shape influences the ability of dark-adapted hawkmoths to find the nectar reservoir of a flower.

A 3D printed flower. Photo by Octavio Campos.
The data presented in the paper are interesting in their own right, but it's actually an aspect of my methods that has garnered lots of media attention in the past few weeks: I used a 3D-printer to manufacture the flowers that I used in my experiments. 

If you want to systematically manipulate flower shape in a series of experiments, using different varieties, cultivares, or species of real flowers is pretty much out of the question because of the uncontrollable variation found even among the various flowers of a single plant.  And what if you can't find a variety that displays the shape phenotype you're looking for?  And how do you control of all of the other confounding variables that are going to be present among different varieties or species of flowers?  It just makes things too messy from an experimental design point of view.  Making artificial flowers with prescribed shapes is the way to go.  But I wanted the ability to have extremely fine-scale quantitative control over my flower shapes, and I also wanted to be able to make precise duplicates quickly.

So, my advisers and I came up with a single mathematical equation that, depending on the numerical values of it parameters, specified a particular three-dimensional shape.  And we already had a 3D printer in the lab, so why not use that to quickly manufacture the mathematically-specified shapes?

Different 3D printed flower morphologies. Photo by Octavio Campos.
This is the first use of 3D-printing technology to study the nuances of plant-pollinator interactions (that we know of), and it could (we hope) set the stage for a whole new range of investigations that were previously prohibitively difficult to execute.  Perhaps that's why the paper has struck such a chord with various media outlets.  I'm thankful for the coverage, and I hope there is similar interest in my next paper (in prep), which will take the experimental setup in the current paper to a whole order of magnitude of increased sophistication and depth of available data!  Wait for it!!

These are some of the media coverage pieces that I have been made aware of so far:

Link to the original paper:

Link to the general-audiences description of the paper

From UW Today:

From the Annals of Botany:

From a 3D-printing industry channel:

From a newspaper in Switzerland:

From the research highlights of the prestigious Nature:

~ Octavio Campos


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