It all started a long time ago, over 150 years ago in fact, in 1866, the same year the US Civil War officially ended. It was then that, during an expedition to the Gunung Matang massif in western Sarawak, Malaysia, an Italian botanist named Odoardo Beccari while scouring through the tropical jungles unearthed something truly alien-like: a plant, to be sure, but a plant with no leaves, no chlorophyll, and one that didn't perform photosynthesis and appeared to live underground. It looked more like a fungus or, perhaps more astutely, an insect or arachnid.
That was until January of last year, when biologists from the Crop Research Institution in the Czech Republic happened to be exploring the exact same region of rainforest that Beccari had trudged through so many years before, when they spotted a bizarre flower poking through the leaf litter. They didn't know what they were looking at right away. The first people to have recorded the plant in over 150 years, they were also the first to ever photograph it. What they had just rediscovered was Beccari's otherworldly plant. The picture above represents the first time the species was ever photographed, and the photo credit belongs to: Sochor et al, 2018.
T. neptunis is most easily identified by its sexual organ: a small, 3.5-inch (9 centimeters) flower it pokes out of the ground, that looks like it might belong on an alien planet or perhaps deep in the ocean. It only appears above soil when it flowers, although the bloom is hardly flower-like in appearance, and flowering is rare. Blooms only appear for a few brief weeks at a time, and likely not even every year, which most likely explains why these plants are so difficult to spot.
"To our knowledge, it is only the second finding of the species in total. We therefore provide its amended description, inclusive internal characters, and very first photographic documentation of this iconic and, due to its peculiar appearance and also the name, almost mythical plant," the team of Czech researchers wrote in a paper published Feb. 21 in the journal Phytotaxa.
"Its inconspicuous appearance may potentially contribute to our limited knowledge on its distribution as it may be easily overlooked in the field," they said.
But scientists aren't just excited about how rare the plant is - it also has some really weird qualities that have botanists worldwide intrigued. The small flower is tiny enough to be easily overlooked, but it is so strange that once noticed you simply cannot take your eyes off of it. It belongs to the genus Thismia, a group of closely related plants colloquially referred to as "fairy lanterns." And the Czech team's photographs reveal that it looks remarkably similar to Beccari's original drawings.
Its smooth stem, "whitish or creamy," the researchers wrote, pokes up from a simple system of roots designed to goad nutrients from underground fungi. Its bulb has the shape of a bruised and swollen thumb — only it is sickly pale, striped with red, and has an opening at the tip like the mouth of a sea-worm. The most dramatic part of the flower is the trio of "red, hairy" appendages sticking straight up like a shrimp's long antennae from flat protrusions around the bulb — part of its pollen-producing organ.
The researchers said they don't know precisely how the plant pollinates, but they did find two species of dead fly inside the flower, which they said suggests that the insects might act as pollinators.
The researchers wrote that their rediscovery of T. neptunis is part of a broader pattern of biologists discovering new and long-lost species of plants in rainforests in the last decades. Efforts are underway, even as rainforests all around the world are shrinking and threatening collapse, to get botanists into these regions to “discover what we can” before these plants and animals disappear forever.
It's unknown, they wrote, the breadth of T. neptunis' range, or how that range has shifted since 1866. Beccari didn't leave detailed information on precisely where he found the flowers, though he was staying in a cabin near where the researchers spotted it recently.
The researchers wrote that the discovery makes them more hopeful that they might encounter two other plants Beccari described from his time in Malaysia that have not been seen since, because the region of rainforest where he worked (and where T. neptunis was found) has remained largely undisturbed by human encroachment.
Despite its scarcity, scientists aren't sure if Thismia neptunis is actually endangered due to its obscure, underground lifestyle. Most of what scientists surmise about its biology comes from knowledge of its other better-studied relatives, but they will certainly require a larger sample size before too much can be posited.
I like that.