Alien-Looking Parasitic Plant Rediscovered After 151 Years
Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari is best known for discovering the infamous corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum) in Sumatra in 1878. An attractive staple of botanical gardens worldwide, the plant mesmerizes audiences with its gargantuan inflorescence while simultaneously assaulting them with an odor akin to rotting flesh.
But the corpse flower isn't Beccari's only odd find. In 1866, while exploring a wet, heavily forested, mountainous region in Sarawak, Borneo bordering present-day Kubah National Park, he stumbled upon a curious specimen while carefully exploring the damp soil and underbrush in a region where the shade was particularly dense. Standing roughly nine centimeters tall, sporting a white stem crowned with an insect-like reddish-brown and orange flower featuring three long, antennae-like segments, the plant would undoubtedly seem alien to most laypersons. Beccari had already spotted other strange plants similar to this one, however, and so with learned intent, he calmly penciled a detailed drawing of the specimen and dubbed it Thismia neptunis.
Today, botanists know Thismia as a genus of relatively small, brightly-colored plants that parasitize fungi for food rather than utilize photosynthesis. Its 76 documented members, also known as fairy lanterns for their mythical looks, have been found almost entirely in the southern hemisphere.
After Beccari's chance discovery of T. neptunis, the plant wasn't seen again until January of 2017. Czech researchers from the Crop Research Institution and Palacky University found and photographed two plants almost in the exact same area as Beccari. They recently described their exploits in the journal Phytotaxa.
Curiously, both specimens had dead flies stuck to their flower lobes. Were the flies food for the plants? Could they be pollinators? The researchers aren't sure but they speculated that "the insects seem to have been attracted by smell of the flowers and accidentally drowned."
They also further speculated that T. neptunis is primarily restricted to lowland rainforests, perhaps only in Sarawak, and estimate it to be critically endangered, with perhaps fewer than fifty specimens alive.
We'll know more about this alien plant as other examples are uncovered.
Source: Michal Sochor, Zuzana Egertova, Michal Hrones, Martin Dancak. "Rediscovery of Thismia neptunis (Thismiaceae) after 151 years." Phytotaxa. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.11646/phytotaxa.340.1.5