Wednesday, June 17, 2015

What’s That Smell? Redux

When we walk into our Tropical Butterfly House the first smell is often the pleasant, fragrant, jasmine flower mingled with other, subtler floral bouquets. On the morning of June 16th, however, the scent that greeted visitors was very different. Underneath the floral perfume was something stinky. Could it be one of our Amorphophallus bulbifer plants AKA corpse plant?

Last time we smelled this plant we thought there might be a dead animal hidden in a crawl space. It was that strong. Since then, we wouldn’t have thought in 100 years that we could be uncertain of the corpse plant's odor. This time the scent was more elusive. This time there was a subtle, disturbing aroma that mingled uncomfortably with the usual fragrances.

So why does A. bulbifer stink? The flower’s adaptation seems peculiar in our Tropical Butterfly House, where brightly colored, pleasantly scented neighboring flowers surround it. The thing is, not all insects are attracted to the same things. Carrion insects are attracted to the smell of decaying flesh. A. bulbifer is providing pollen for a niche market of pollinators. Flies and carrion beetle smell its scent and are drawn to it in hopes of finding a meal, a mate, and/or a place to rear their young. These insects embrace the flower only to get stuck and trapped in its spathe until they are covered in its pollen. Then, once they wriggle their way out, they might get tricked again by another corpse plant, and just like that: pollination.

The scent is very strong, and very short-lived. By the end of the day, there was no longer a trace of the stench. Though brief, we were very happy; what a great start to National Pollinator Week!

Although we first think of bees, butterflies, and birds as pollinators, remember that sometimes an unsuspecting and naïve carrion insect, lured in by the prospect of a yummy dead animal in which to feast or raise young, is a pollinator, too. And that’s pretty cool!

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