Dracula radiosa Credit: Eric in SF via Wikimedia
If you thought we were done talking about plant costumes, you were wrong. While the title may lead you conjure images of vampires with fangs and dark cloaks, orchids of the Dracula genus look decidedly like something else- an adorable monkey face! I admit it’s a strange nexus of nomenclature and form; nevertheless, today’s post will be appropriate for all audiences.
Dracula simia Credit: Dick Culbert from Gibsons, B.C., Canada via Wikimedia
Dracula orchids won’t be found in Transylvania. These blooms are native to the cloud forests of Ecuador, growing in rainforests at elevations of ~3000 – 6500 feet. They were given their name by botanist Carlyle Luer in 1978. The name was inspired by the dark burgundy to black petals that curve up like the stiff collar of a vampire’s cloak. The petals also taper off into sharp points reminiscent of infamous vampire fangs.
Dracula vampira Credit: Eric Hunt via Wikimedia
But back to the real costume, why would a flower need to look like a monkey? If you’ve been paying attention to the last few posts, you can probably guess that the answer has something to do with pollination. However, it’s not quite as obvious as the Orphys bee orchid connection- these flowers are not trying to entice monkeys over for pollen transfer. From what scientists have been able to decipher so far, these flowers aren’t really wearing a monkey costume so much as they are wearing a mushroom costume. Take a closer look at the floral structure posing as the monkey’s snout. These lightly colored and highly ridged structures look very similar to mushrooms found nearby on the rainforest floor. Check out this link with images for a close-up comparison.
Yes, a perfectly good autotroph in mycological masquerade. It’s not just looks either. Again, orchids dig deep into their biochemical repertoire to create a specialized perfume to go along with the visual effect. All of these smells and visual cues serve to trick small flies into coming to their flowers for pollination purposes. The flies prefer real mushrooms as a food source and place to lay their eggs, but are fooled by the Dracula orchids.
Still, this botanical mushroom costume looks an awful lot like a small monkey’s face. I don’t think scientists have completely uncovered all of Dracula’s secrets when it comes to floral form. Investigations are still underway to tease apart the factors of shape, coloration, and scent. Of course, it’s still possible that the rest of the costume isn’t exclusively for the flies. The faces may serve to deter other would-be herbivores from eating the plants. If you were an insect or another small mammal, wouldn’t you think twice before walking over for a bite if that face was staring back at you? I know I would.
Dracula cordobae Credit: Javier Martin via Wikimedia
If you’re interested in learning more about the ecology of cloud forests and the scientists that study it, check out the link below for a trailer for the Cloud Forest Project documentary film.
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