10 Fascinating Facts About Corpse Flowers

Big, smelly, rare, phallic—these adjectives all describe Amorphophallus titanum, commonly known as the corpse flower. While native to western Indonesia, the plant is currently taking Washington, D.C. by smelly storm: The last of three—count 'em, three—corpse flowers to bloom this summer began its stinky blossoming this week at the United States Botanic Garden. In honor of the occasion, here's some trivia to celebrate one of nature's stinkiest plants.

1. THE CORPSE FLOWER'S LATIN NAME IS NSFW (OR BRITISH TV).

No, it's not just you: Amorphophallus titanum really does look like a large, lumpy penis. In fact, the plant gets its scientific name from three roots: amorphos (without form), phallos (penis), and titanum (giant).

Can't say the plant's Latin name in polite company without blushing? Thanks to David Attenborough, the English naturalist and TV personality, you can also opt to use its common name, Titan arum. While narrating BBC nature documentary series "The Private Life of Plants," Attenborough thought the corpse flower's proper name was too improper to say on TV, so he coined a less-scandalous moniker. Or, you could simply go with its Indonesian name, bunga bangkai.

2. A 19TH-CENTURY ITALIAN BOTANIST 'DISCOVERED' THE CORPSE FLOWER.

Western scientists first learned of Amorphophallus titanum in 1878, when Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari came across the enormous plant growing in the rainforests of Sumatra, a large island in western Indonesia. The specimen he recorded had a circumference of around 5 feet, and its height was around 10 feet.

Beccari tried to ship the flowering shrub's corms, or giant underground tubers, back to Europe, but French customs ended up holding them under an order designed to prevent the spread of the grapevine pest Phylloxera. Still, a few seeds survived against the odds, and a single seedling was sent to the Kew Botanic Gardens in England, where Beccari had once studied. There, it flowered in 1889. In 1926, when the same corpse flower bloomed again, the crowds were so large that police were brought in to control them.

3. THE CORPSE FLOWER GROSSED OUT THE ENGLISH (IN MORE WAYS THAN ONE).

Not surprisingly, the corpse flower quickly gained notoriety in Europe: An English artist hired to illustrate the plant is said to have become ill from the odor, and governesses forbade young ladies from looking at it, for obvious reasons.

4. A CORPSE FLOWER ISN'T REALLY A SINGLE FLOWER.

Technically, a corpse flower isn't a single flower; it's a flowering plant with clusters of blooms. The plant consists of a thick central spike, known as a spadix, with a base that's encircled by two rings of "male" and "female" flowers. A large, frilly leaf called a spathe envelops these flowers to protect them.

5. CORPSE FLOWERS ARE, AS THEIR LATIN NAME SUGGESTS, ENORMOUS.

Aside from its smell, a corpse flower's most noticeable quality is its sheer size. The plant holds the record for the world's largest unbranched inflorescence (a fancy term for describing a floral structure made of many smaller individual flowers), and it can reach heights of up to 12 feet in the wild. Cultivated corpse flowers are smaller, measuring anywhere from 6 to 8 feet.

6. THEY DON'T HAVE AN ANNUAL BLOOMING CYCLE.

Years, or even decades, can pass before a corpse flower reaches peak bloom. As the big moment finally approaches, the plant's bud grows several inches per day before slowing down its growth. Two protective leaves, called bracts, shrivel and fall off the spathe's base. Then, the spathe unfurls over roughly 24 to 36 hours, giving curious onlookers just a small window to see (and smell) its maroon-colored insides for themselves.

7. THERE'S SCIENCE BEHIND THE CORPSE FLOWER'S TERRIBLE SMELL.

When a corpse flower blooms, the spadix heats up to temperatures of up to 98°F as the plant unleashes a stench akin to rotting flesh. "Those pulses of heat cause the air to rise, like a chimney effect," Ray Mims, a spokesperson for the U.S. Botanic Garden, explained to Washingtonian magazine. "It gets the stench up in the air" to attract pollinating dung beetles and carrion beetles, who are drawn to the scent of rotting flesh.

Experts have identified different molecules responsible for titan arum's stink, including dimethyl trisulfide (like limburger cheese), trimethylamine (rotting fish), and isovaleric acid (sweaty socks).

8. CORPSE FLOWERS GROW FRUIT WHEN THEY'RE POLLINATED.

Once a corpse flower finishes blooming, it doesn't die. The spathe withers and collapses after a few days, and if pollinated, the plant soon produces hundreds of small, golden-colored fruits. These berry-like seeds are eaten and dispersed by animals such as birds and the rhinoceros hornbill, or harvested in captivity by garden conservation scientists. (No word on how they taste, as they're reportedly not suitable for human consumption.)

Once the seeds ripen from gold to dark orange, and then to dark red—a stage that lasts for five or six months—the corpse flower goes dormant. Then, it sprouts as a tree-like leaf during its next few life cycles as it stores away energy from the sun. Each cycle, the leaf grows bigger and bigger, before dying. Once the plant's corm is fully replenished, it finally blooms again.

9. THE CORPSE FLOWER WAS ONCE THE BRONX'S OFFICIAL FLOWER.

In 1937, the New York Botanical Garden became the proud home of America's first recorded corpse flower bloom. Two years later, yet another flower bloomed in the Bronx garden. Borough president James J. Lyons was so tickled, he designated Amorphophallus titanum as the Bronx's official flower. ''Its tremendous size shall be symbolic of the fastest-growing borough in the City of New York,'' Lyons said, according to The New York Times. Meanwhile, news crews covering the event are said to have nearly fainted from the smell.

The Bronx used the corpse flower as a symbol until 2000, when then-borough president Fernando Ferrer, aiming to overhaul the municipality's image, changed its official flower to the day lily. "I hate to think of the corpse flower as the Bronx flower, because people would think the Bronx and think, 'The Bronx stinks,'" Michael Ruggiero, then senior curator for horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden, told the Times. "The Bronx is a people place, and the corpse flower is not a people plant. The day lily is, and therefore is a good fit for the Bronx."

10. THE CORPSE FLOWER IS THREATENED BY HABITAT LOSS.

Corpse flowers aren't just rare—they're also vulnerable to habitat loss and destruction, as vast swaths of Sumatra's rainforests are chopped down for timber and to clear ground for oil palm plantations. According to one estimate provided by the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, Indonesia has now lost around 72 percent of its original rainforest cover. This contributes to the flower's demise, and also threatens important pollinators like the rhinoceros hornbill.

New Study Reveals 'Hyper-Alarming' Decline of Rainforest Insect Populations

iStock/jmmf
iStock/jmmf

Climate change is decimating yet another vital part of the world's ecosystem, according to a startling new paper. Rainforest insects are dying off at alarming rates, according to a new study spotted by the The Washington Post. In turn, the animals that feed off those insects are decreasing, too.

In the study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a pair of scientists from the Rensselaer Polytechnic University in New York and the National Autonomous University of Mexico studied populations of rainforest arthropods (an invertebrate classification that includes insects and spiders) in the El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico. They compared the number of insects lead author Bradford Lister found on trips in 1976 and 1977 with the number he and co-author Andres Garcia found on trips they took between 2011 and 2013.

Lister and Garcia used nets and sticky traps to collect insects on the ground and several feet above the ground in the forest canopy. They dried these captured bugs and measured the mass of their haul against the mass of insects found in the 1970s, finding that the modern net sweeps captured only an eighth to a fourth of the insects captured in the '70s. The mass of insects captured by sticky traps on the ground declined by 30 to 60 times what they were a few decades ago. They also tracked populations of lizards, frogs, and birds that live off those rainforest insects, finding that those populations had declined significantly, too, at levels not seen in other rainforest animals that don't rely on insects for food.

Tropical insects are particularly vulnerable to climatic changes, since they can't regulate their body temperature. During the time of the study, average maximum temperatures in El Yunque rose by almost 4°F (2°C). The warming climate is "the major driver" of this decline in arthropod populations, the study authors write, triggering a collapse of the forest food chain.

The paper has other scientists worried. "This is one of the most disturbing articles I have ever read," University of Connecticut entomologist David Wagner, who wasn't involved in the research, told The Washington Post, calling the results "hyper-alarming." Other studies of insect populations have found similarly dire results, including significant declines in butterflies, moths, bees, and other species. One recent study found that Germany's flying insect populations had decreased by as much as 75 percent in the last three decades. Scientists don't always attribute those population losses directly to warmer temperatures (habitat loss, pesticide use, droughts, and other factors might play a role), but it’s clear that insect populations are facing grave threats from the modern world.

Not all insect species will be equally affected by climate change, though. While we may see a sharp drop in the populations of tropical insects, scientists project that the number of insects in other regions will rise—leading to a sharp increase in crop-eating pests in some parts of the world and broadening mosquitos' geographical range.

[h/t The Washington Post]

This 'Time-Traveling Illusion' Is Designed to Trick Your Brain

A team of researchers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have designed an illusion that might trick your brain into seeing things that aren’t there, the New Atlas reports.

Dubbed the Illusory Rabbit, it provides instructions that are simple enough to follow. Start playing the YouTube video below and look at the cross in the middle of the screen while also watching for flashes that appear at the bottom of the screen. Most importantly, you’ll want to add up the number of flashes you see throughout the video. (And make sure your volume is up.)

We don’t want to spoil the fun, so before we explain the science of how it works, check out the video and try it for yourself.

Did you see three flashes paired with three beeps? You’re not alone. This is due to a phenomenon called postdiction, which is a little like the opposite of prediction. According to a paper outlining these findings in the journal PLOS ONE, postdiction occurs when the brain processes information retroactively [PDF]. This occurs in such a way that our perception of earlier events is altered by stimuli that come later. In this case, you might think you missed the flash paired with the second of the three beeps, so your mind goes back and tries to make sense of the missing information. That's why you may see an “illusory flash” in the middle of the screen, sandwiched between the two real flashes.

For this reason, the researchers call the mind trick a “time-traveling illusion across multiple senses” (in this case, vision and hearing). It’s successful because the beeps and flashes occur so rapidly—in less than one-fifth of a second. The senses essentially get confused, and the brain tries to fill in the gaps retroactively.

"Illusions are a really interesting window into the brain," the paper’s first author, Noelle Stiles, said in a statement. "By investigating illusions, we can study the brain's decision-making process.” Researchers wanted to find out how the brain “determines reality” when a couple of your senses (in this case, sight and hearing) are bombarded with noisy and conflicting information. When the brain isn’t sure of what’s going on, it essentially makes up information.

“The brain uses assumptions about the environment to solve this problem,” Stiles said. “When these assumptions happen to be wrong, illusions can occur as the brain tries to make the best sense of a confusing situation. We can use these illusions to unveil the underlying inferences that the brain makes."

[h/t New Atlas]

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