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Lorraine Phelan
Lorraine Phelan

Orchids: Masters of Plant Pareidolia

Lorraine Phelan
Lorraine Phelan

Pareidolia is the tendency to see familiar or significant images in places where none is intended. Classic examples are sightings of Jesus or the Virgin Mary in wood grain or the pastime of looking for shapes in clouds. Pareidolia is encouraged in the Rorschach inkblot test. There are plenty of examples in the natural world, and orchids are particularly notable for looking like something else.

Lady Orchid

Photograph by Jeantosti.

Orchis purpurea, or Lady Orchid, range through Europe and Northern Africa. The lovely blossoms show a wide purple skirt and a fabulous hat, under which you can almost see a pair of demure eyes. We don't know why a plant would grow flowers that look like a lady, but we can sure see it.

Monkey Orchid

Photograph by BerndH.

The monkey orchid (Orchis simia) is said to be shaped like a monkey's body. A male monkey, to be sure. See more pictures of them in this post.

Naked Man Orchid

Photograph by Lumbar.

Orchis italica is native to the Mediterranian area, and is sometimes called the Naked Man Orchid. You can see why. The blossoms even have little eyes and smiles!

Dracula

Photograph by Eric in SF.

Dracula radiosa is an orchid native to Colombia. It might not look the way you picture Dracula from the movies, but it certainly has a creepy face staring at you. Dracula is the genus name, and there are over 100 species, so the face in this flower has nothing to do with Dracula. Still creepy.

Monkey Face Orchid

Photograph by Flickr user Eric Hunt.

Dracula simia is another species in the Dracula genus. As the name implies, the blooms of this orchid look exactly like a monkey's face. See more pictures here.

Moth Orchid

Photograph by Arad.

There are about 60 species of Moth Orchids (Phalaenopsis), which are native to Asia and popular among orchid growers. Many of them, if you look really close, appear to have a small bird emerging from their center. Get a closer look at this pink specimen.

Get an even better look at the bird in another photograph at Flickr.

Flying Duck Orchid

Photograph by Flickr user Lorraine Phelan.

The Australian orchid genus Caleana is still not fully classified, but it is commonly called the Flying Duck Orchid. The shape evolved to attract the sawfly, which pollinates the plant. Each component of the flower is design to use the sawfly, like a bright color for it to see, a place to land, and a petal that traps the fly into taking a pollen-rich route out. That's one smart duck!

Bee Orchid

Photograph by Hectonichus.

While we can't say that nature intended for an orchid to look like a male body or a flying duck, the orchid genus Ophrys has a simple reason for looking the way it does. The Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera) bloom resembles a bee in order to attract bees. When a male bee tries to mate with the flower (because it's so pretty), he ends up pollinating it. Using an insect to achieve plant sex is common, but using insect sex to achieve plant sex is brilliantly weird. It apparently works well, because Ophrys ranges over several continents. You can read more about orchids that imitate insects at NPR

Fly Orchid

Photograph by Flickr user Ann Mead.

Another species of Orphys is the Fly Orchid (Ophrys insectifera). The flowers not only look like flies, but also smell of insect pheromones. Found all over Europe, the Fly Orchid does not even have to produce nectar to draw flies for pollination purposes.

A Well-dressed Orchid

Photograph by Javier Díaz Barrera.

Javier Díaz Barrera took this picture of an unidentified orchid in Spain just a couple of months ago. Can you see the little smiling man wearing a suit and tie? You have to wonder what kind of insects this is supposed to attract! My guess is that it is related to the Ophrys genus.

Bonus: Hooker's Lips

Orchids may be the masters of plant pareidolia, but they aren't the only plants that look like something else. Psychotria elata is a tropical plant that produces the psychedelic chemical DMT. The plant is also called Hooker's Lips. I can't imagine why.

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A New NASA Map Shows Spring Is Coming Earlier Each Year
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Climate change is shifting Earth’s seasons. Winters are getting shorter, and the warmth of spring has started to arrive earlier and earlier, messing with the timing of processes like animal migrations and the budding of new plant growth. In a series of graphics spotted by Flowing Data, the NASA Earth Observatory shows how much earlier new leaves are arriving in some parts of the U.S., and how much earlier they reach full bloom.

The data comes from a 2016 study of U.S. national parks, so the maps only cover seasonal changes within the park system. But since there are so many parks spread across the U.S., it’s a pretty good snapshot of how climate change is affecting the timing of spring across the country. The map in green shows the difference in “first leaf” arrival, or when the first leaves emerge from tree buds, and the map in purple shows the arrival of the first blooms.

A map of the U.S. with a colored grid showing where leaves are coming earlier
Joshua Stevens, NASA Earth Observatory

Around 75 percent of the 276 parks analyzed in the study have been experiencing earlier springs, and half had recently seen the earliest springs recorded in 112 years. In Olympic National Park in Washington, the first leaves are now appearing 23 days earlier than they did a century ago, while the Grand Canyon is seeing leaves appear about 11 days earlier. National parks in the Sierras and in Utah are seeing leaves appear five to 10 days earlier, as are areas along the Appalachian Trail. Some parks, however, particularly in the South, are actually seeing a later arrival of spring leaves, shown in dark gray in the graphic.

A map of the U.S. with a colored grid showing where blooms are coming earlier
Joshua Stevens, NASA Earth Observatory

The places that are witnessing earlier first blooms aren't always the ones with extra-early first leaves. The Appalachian Trail is blooming earlier, even though the first leaves aren't arriving any earlier. But in other places, like Olympic National Park, both the first leaves and the first blooms are arriving far earlier than they used to.

“Changes in leaf and flowering dates have broad ramifications for nature,” National Park Service ecologist John Gross explained in the Earth Observatory’s blog. “Pollinators, migratory birds, hibernating species, elk, and caribou all rely on food sources that need to be available at the right time.” When temperatures get out of sync with usual seasonal changes, those species suffer.

[h/t Flowing Data]

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These Fake Flowers Could Help Scientists Study At-Risk Bees
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If you haven't heard, the world's bees are having a crisis. According to one recent study, bee populations in some areas have plummeted by 75 percent in a quarter of a century. Some countries have introduced legislation banning certain pesticides in response to the news, but solving the complicated problem will likely require much more research. In order to gather better data on bee behavior, one new media artist has developed a machine that can give scientists a bug's-eye view.

As Co.Design reports, Michael Candy's Synthetic Pollenizer is designed to blend into a bee's natural environment. Yellow circles bolted around the opening of the device imitate the petals on a flower. Tubes pump real nectar and pollen into the center of the fake flower, so when bees land on it to feed, they're collecting real reproductive materials they can spread to the next plant they visit.

Candy, who's based in Brisbane, Australia, originally conceived the apparatus as a way for scientists to track the pollinating behaviors of bees. The synthetic flower is outfitted with cameras and dyes, and with enough of them distributed in the wild, researchers could see which bees travel to certain places and how long they stay.

After his concept reached the final round of the Bio Art and Design awards in the Netherlands, Candy decided to create his own prototype with help from an urban beekeeper in Melbourne, Australia. The invention worked: Bees mistook it for real flora and carried pollen from it to their next destination. But to use it for tracking and studying bees on a larger scale, Candy would need to build a lot more of them. The pollinators would also need to be scattered throughout the bees' natural habitats, and since they would each come equipped with a camera, privacy (for nearby residents, not the bees) could become a concern.

Even if the concept never gets the funding it needs to expand, Candy says it could still be used in smaller applications. Fake flowers designed to look like real orchids, for example, could encourage the pollination of endangered orchid species. But for people studying dwindling bee populations, orchids are low on the list of concerns: 30 percent of all the world's crops are pollinated by bees [PDF].

[h/t Co.Design]

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