Furnace at work

February 18, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

More than half-a-century ago, when I first started to study the natural world, things were neatly divided into cold-blooded and warm-blooded, with plants definitely on the cold side of the divide and mammals and birds on the warm side. To be sure, the green world could get internally hot, if the air temperature mandated it, but plants couldn't raise and maintain an elevated temperature with anything approaching a thermostat. That ability was solely a talent of mammalian and avian critters... or so went the story. But scientists studying the common Skunk Cabbage now tell a different tale, one in which a plant displays distinctly animal heating characteristics. In February, Symplocarpus foetidus turns on its internal furnaces inside a well-insulated flower hood and raises the temperature to the 70-degree mark. Even more amazing, the plant can maintain the 70-degree reading by carefully adjusting and regulating its heat output. In fact, it can get so warm in the immediate neighborhood that all the surrounding snow and ice melt. The warmth is not lost on insects, like craneflies and early-flying moths and bees, that detect the mephitic but irresistible scent of the heat-liberated floral "perfume" and stop by the natural warm-up huts for a pollinating visit.


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