Facing up to Dracula’s Real Intentions

Do you see faces in everyday objects? Our brains are heavily-oriented towards seeing patterns and shapes that help us make sense of our environment and the world around us.

Pareidolia is the term for the way we see faces in inanimate objects – like the famous face on Mars or smiling bark patterns in trees that look like a face. Researchers have found that our brains respond to perceived face shapes in objects in much the same way as we respond to real faces – assigning the same emotions and social cues as smiles, fear, surprise or warmth.

Image credit: Reddit

In the world of plants, some are much more strategic about patterns and mimicry in the pursuit of their goals – typically successful reproduction. Many plants have evolved physical and other sensory cues that enhance their ability to survive and thrive in their unique environments.
In some cases these evolutionary features also bring delight or surprise in people, and to that end they could make interesting and novel landscape features to add a dimension of emotion to your landscape.

Monkey Face Orchid. Image credit: Luis Baquero licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Take the Monkey Face Orchid, for example – delightfully named Dracula simia, this beautiful orchid looks, to our brains, like the face of a cheeky monkey. The modified petals, known as the labellum, resemble the monkey’s mouth and make it a stunning and distinctive talking point.

However, there’s more to this flower. On closer inspection, the labellum also looks a bit like the gills of a mushroom. Researchers at the University of Oregon wanted to better understand why this orchid might resemble a mushroom when they found the orchid was frequented by tiny fruit flies that also like to eat fungi from mushrooms.

By using special 3D-printed copies of the flowers with and without scent and differing colours, the researchers established that the orchid has evolved to attract these ton flies who mistake the distinctive mushroomy smell of the labellum for fungal food sources and carry pollen between the plants.

It’s just one of many forms of biomimicry in action and more reasons to find creative joy in growing unique and distinctive plants that capture our emotions as well as offer functions to pollinators and biodiversity.

The research was published in New Phytologist in 2016: Policha, T., Davis, A., Barnadas, M., Dentinger, B.T.M., Raguso, R.A. and Roy, B.A. (2016). Disentangling visual and olfactory signals in mushroom-mimicking Dracula orchids using realistic three-dimensional printed flowers. New Phytologist, [online] 210(3), pp.1058–1071. Available at: https://nph.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/nph.13855.

Cover Image credit: Neuroscience News.

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