Fun from the NYT's Tuesday Science section:
A spurge that smells like death
Rafflesia arnoldii is no shrinking violet. At up to three feet in diameter, it’s the world’s largest flower. It’s also possibly the most repulsive — it looks and smells like rotting flesh (the better to attract flies, which act as pollinators).Beware the moths, especially if you're a sad clown
But while Rafflesia may be easy to describe, it has been much harder to classify. It’s a parasite, embedding itself in vines in the understory of pristine rainforests in Indonesia, and it lacks the roots, stems, leaves and photosynthesizing machinery that would give scientists a clue as to its evolutionary background.(...)
...Dr. [Charles C.] Davis and colleagues have done more genetic research to solve the puzzle. Their conclusion, published online by the journal Science, is that the Rafflesiaceae, as this family of species is known, are nestled within the spurge family, which includes rubber plants, castor, cassava and poinsettia. “They are smack dab in the middle,” Dr. Davis said.
In some ways this is a surprise, because spurges are so well known. On the other hand, Dr. Davis said, the Rafflesiaceae “are so off on their own trip that their position within any group would require some explaining.”
“These plants flower in understory rainforest environments, which are dimly lit, so they are not easily seen by pollinators,” Dr. Davis said. “They would have had incredible incentive to increase their surface area, to maximize odor production and bring in these pollinators.”
Moths and butterflies obtain moisture wherever they can find it — in Africa, Asia and South America, even from the tears of mammals and reptiles. But until now, no moth or butterfly has been seen drinking tears from a bird.
Roland Hilgartner of the University of Ulm in Germany and colleagues observed a species of moth in Madagascar, Hemiceratoides hieroglyphica, that alights on the neck of a sleeping magpie or Newtonia bird and sticks its long proboscis between the bird’s closed eyelids. Moths were observed in this position for 30 minutes or longer, presumably drinking the bird’s tears. The finding was reported in Biology Letters.
The moth’s proboscis is about half an inch long (about half the moth’s length), with a sharp point and many tiny spines and barbs. The researchers suggest that it functions somewhat like a harpoon, because it has to go not only between upper and lower eyelids, but also through the bird’s nictitating membrane, which further protects the eyes.
Beaks? Moths with beaks?