Geek Trivia: Flowering intellect

What species of insect did Charles Darwin predict would exist--years before it was discovered--simply based on his examination of Madagascan orchids?

Editor's note: The Trivia Geek is wrapping up his work on the TechRepublic newsletter revamp. In the meantime, he's reached way back into the archives to grab this Classic Geek, which originally ran on June 25, 2003.

The orchid family of flowers ranks as one of the most paradoxical plant varieties known to scientists, proving to be among both the hardiest and the most fragile botanical life forms. Orchids appear on six continents, thriving in a staggering variety of climates, yet for years horticulturalists were unable to cultivate them.

The problem lay in replicating a specific fungus that nature supplied to the orchids, which early cultivators failed to realize was essential. This fungus is necessary for orchid seeds to germinate; without it, propagating orchids under greenhouse conditions is impossible. The orchids simply can't survive without the fungus.

Many species of orchids are extraordinarily dependent on insects and birds to aid in pollination -- so much so that several breeds of orchids have developed an array of lures and traps to entice and cajole cooperation. For example, certain orchid species mimic apiarian mating pheromones to attract bees, while others smell of rotting flesh to attract flies, and still others adopt the appearance of nectar-producing flowers to attract butterflies. In some cases, the relationship between an orchid and its partner insect has been so mutually intertwined that some scientists believe that both the insect and the orchid species evolved in tandem.

This concept of co-evolution is nearly as old as evolutionary theory itself. Charles Darwin predicted the future discovery of a particular species of moth based on his observances of an unusually featured Madagascan orchid.

Indeed, Darwin's expected insect was discovered decades after he predicted its existence, possessing physical features that -- though foretold by Darwin -- were dismissed as impossible by contemporary scholars.


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