There were no signs of the Thismia neptunis anywhere for 150 years. It was almost as if the strange, alien-like plant had vanished off the face of the Earth. However, in 2017 a group of scientists were exploring the Borneo rainforest when they made an unexpected discovery that would reveal the fate of the rare lifeform.
We’ll learn more about this fascinating find a little later, but first let’s discover more about the place in which it was found. Borneo is the third-largest island in the world and the biggest in Asia. It lies in the Java Sea and belongs to the Indonesian archipelago. Borneo is also shared between three countries: Indonesia owns 73 percent of the landmass, Malaysia has 26 percent and just one percent belongs to Brunei.
Borneo can also be split into seven separate ecoregions. Low-lying jungles take up much of the island and cover an area of 165,100 square miles. This rainforest is thought to be the oldest in the world, but it’s not the only important habitat on the Island.
The lowlands of Borneo are also home to mangrove, freshwater and peat swamp forests. Meanwhile, the central highlands boast mountain rainforests that lie more than 3,000 feet above sea level. The highest elevations on Mount Kinabalu also feature an alpine meadow and alpine shrubland.
Borneo is home to an array of wildlife thanks to these distinct ecoregions. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) estimates that the island contains roughly 222 mammals, which include 44 species that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. There are 420 birds, 37 of which are unique to Borneo. Elsewhere, there are 100 amphibians and 394 fish species – 19 of them endemic.
The mountainous region found in the middle of the island is known as the Heart of Borneo. This area alone is believed to contain ten types of primates, more than 350 kinds of birds and 150 amphibian and reptile species, according to the charity. Furthermore, the tropical rainforests on the island bustle with all kinds of wildlife.
And it’s not just animals that thrive in Borneo. The island’s lowlands, swamps, mangroves and forests are also home to around 15,000 species of plants, the WWF says. Of these, 6,000 are only found in Borneo. These plants – along with various fungi and lichens – form the foundation of the food chain that helps to keep the biodiversity found in Borneo booming.
Scientists have studied the island for over 150 years, though there’s still the possibility of undiscovered lifeforms in the Heart of Borneo. That’s because much of the region’s virgin montane forest remains unexplored. As a result, the area is just as interesting to naturalists today as it was to those who ventured here in the 19th century.
Briton Alfred Wallace was one of the most prominent naturalists to visit Borneo. Fellow countryman Charles Darwin has, of course, become known as the father of evolution. But the former was also a prominent thinker on the subject of natural selection. Darwin was inspired by his studies in the Galàpagos Islands, though Wallace used Borneo as the basis of his studies.
Sarawak is of the areas that Wallace was particularly influenced by during his time in Borneo. Today, the region forms part of Malaysia and is known for its wealth of natural resources: including tropical hardwood timber, crude oil and natural gas. However, it’s also famous for its wide array of animal and plant life.
But Wallace wasn’t the only naturalist drawn to Sarawak. In 1865 the Italian Odoardo Beccari traveled to the region to embark on a three-year study of the area’s native animals and plants alongside the biologist Giacomo Doria, who was also from Italy. And Beccari stumbled upon a strange alien-like plant during his expedition.
But let’s take a look at how Beccari became a pioneering naturalist in the first place before we go to his extraordinary discovery. He was born in the Italian city of Florence in November 1843. Beccari then went on to attend universities in Bologna and Pisa before moving to London, England. There, the naturalist took up botany studies at Kew’s Royal Botanic Gardens.
For Beccari, Kew provided a sanctuary away from the pollution of central London. His time there also put him in contact with other prominent naturalists such as Darwin, Joseph Dalton Hooker and William Jackson Hooker. However, one of Beccari’s most influential friendships was with James Brooke, who was also known as the “Rajah of Sarawak.”
And Brooke’s story is fascinating in itself. He was born to English parents in Bengal and went on to join the British East India Company as part of the Bengal Army. However, Brooke ended up in England after sustaining a serious wound. He later inherited a large sum of money and used some of it to buy a 142-ton boat, and the vessel would lead him to Borneo in 1838.
Brooke was enchanted by the tropical paradise he encountered in Borneo. In order to defend the land, he fought off the pirates and enemies of the Sultan and in doing so earned the crown of the Rajah of Sarawak. Under this name, Brooke ruled over a patch of jungle bigger than England.
It was with Brooke’s backing that Beccari accepted an invitation to travel to the Indonesian Archipelago. In April 1865 he set sail from Southampton, England, with Sarawak in his sights. The botanist was then joined by his brother Giovanni and Giacomo Doria when he reached Suez in Egypt. The former’s companions would remain in Borneo for just three months, though Beccari himself stayed there for three years.
Beccari stayed in a bungalow near the royal palace in the Sarawak capital of Kuching. From his base there, he was able to explore the primeval forest that was just a few yards from his door. And it proved the perfect location for Beccari to indulge his fascination for plants.
Beccari was responsible for some incredible discoveries during his explorations. One of them was the gigantic Amorphophallus titanium – the largest unbranched flowering plant in the world. Beccari became the first naturalist to scientifically describe the specimen in 1878. The plant is also known as the corpse flower due to its unpleasant smell.
Other naturalists had studied other members of the Amorphophallus genus in previous years. But none had come across one as rare, big and smelly as the one Beccari had found. Excited, the botanist sent sketches and reports of the plant to European publications and news about the flower was published in the Gardeners’ Chronicle in 1878.
The gardens at Kew – where Beccari had studied botany – managed to cultivate their own Amorphophallus titanum specimen which bloomed in 1885. The event drew in thousands of people who wanted to catch a glimpse of the giant, smelly flower in person. The bloom cycle lasted just three days, which only added to the excitement that visitors felt at being able to see such a wonder.
The Amorphophallus titanium is one of Beccari’s most famous discoveries. Though it’s not the only rare and strange plant that he came across during his time in Sarawak. He was spending time by a river in the west of the region when he noticed an otherworldly bloom emerging from some wet soil. Beccari then stopped to sketch this alien-esque growth before moving on.
The organism that had captured Beccari’s attention was around 3.5 inches in size. Oddly, though, it had no leaves to speak of and an absence of chlorophyll, which plants usually use in photosynthesis. Furthermore, it appeared to live underground and looked more like an arachnid or insect than any plant.
The plant that Beccari documented became known as the Thismia neptunis – though its nickname was the “fairy lantern.” However, the new species was never seen again after the botanist first noted it. In fact, for 150 years it was like it had disappeared off the face of the Earth.
Beccari wrote about his experiences in Sarawak in his book Wandering in the Great Forests of Borneo. The botanist would later return to his native Italy and live there until his death in 1920. And, incredibly, no one came across the mysterious Thismia neptunis again.
However, in 2017 a team of biologists from the Czech Republic’s Crop Research Institution was following in Beccari’s footsteps as they explored the rainforests of Sarawak. The experts suddenly noticed a strange flower emerging from between fallen leaves. The researchers had just rediscovered the long-lost fairy lantern, though they didn’t know it then.
The team of scientists published their findings in a paper published in the Phytotaxa journal after realizing that they had found the highly elusive Thismia neptunis. In it, team members Martin Dancak, Zuzana Egertova, Michal Hrones, Michal Sochor described the plant in detail.
The team revealed that the specimen they had found was small in size – measuring just 3.5 inches across. The leafless plant had a strange bulbed-shape flower with three antennae-like appendages that grow in a vertical direction. The bulb is also pale in color, but it sports red stripes.
The team described a small opening at the top of the Thismia neptunis bulb. They also noted that the flowerhead was upheld by a smooth whitish-colored stem. Furthermore, it shared a number of similarities with other members of the Thismia genus. And they commented on just how accurate Beccari’s original drawings of the plant had been.
An extract from the Czech scientists’ report read, “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.”
Presumably, the team’s “mythical” evaluation of the Thismia neptunis came not only from the plant’s apparent rarity, but also its unusual characteristics. The plant is what’s known as a mycoheterotroph, which means that it does not photosynthesize. This feature is shared by all members of the Thismia genus, which is made up of 50 different species of extinct and living plants, according to Newsweek.
The Czech report found that Thismia neptunis has no use for green parts such as leaves, because it doesn’t photosynthesize. Instead, the species gets its nutrients from fungi in the soil. The plant spends most of its time living underground and only emerges in order to flower, in what is a rare but incredible spectacle.
A cream white stalk propels a dark orange bulb up from the soil when the Thismia neptunis blooms. The bulb cracks open when the flower has reached its full height and it reveals a strange three-pronged bloom that apparently looks reminiscent of the extra-terrestrial eggs from the 1986 movie Aliens.
The Czech scientists took what are believed to be the first pictures of the Thismia neptunis captured in photographs. Remarkably, they show the flower in strikingly similar detail to the sketches made by Beccari 150 years before.
It seems that the Czech team’s rediscovery of the Thismia neptunis was extremely fortuitous indeed. That’s because the strange plants are only in bloom for a few weeks every year. As a result, it seems that the researchers were just in the right place at the opportune moment to see the flower.
Evidently, sightings of the Thismia neptunis have been rare over the years, and there’s still much that scientists have to learn from the plant. For instance, it’s unclear how they are pollinated. Though dead flies were apparently found inside its flowers – suggesting that insects may somehow be involved.
The location in which the plant was found is close to human developments. Its existence could also be under threat, with researchers estimating there could be as few as 50 examples of the plant currently in the world. If this is the case, then the species would be considered as being critically endangered.
Nevertheless, their sighting of the Thismia neptunis gave the Czech scientists hope that they could locate two more plants that Beccari described but have since gone unseen. It’s not unheard of for missing species to suddenly reappear. And in recent years, other lost lifeforms have been rediscovered after decades of obscurity.
For example, in 2017 researchers announced that they had rediscovered a species of moth in Malaysia after 130 years. The oriental blue clearwing was spotted in the country’s lowland rainforest. However, it had not been seen since 1887 when a Polish lepidopterist had collected a damaged specimen.
Meanwhile, in 2017 it emerged that an incredibly rare lily had been found in India after going unseen for almost 80 years. The Arisaema translucens – or cobra lily – was first collected by a botanist called Edward Barnes in 1932. It was then rediscovered by the naturalist Tarun Chhabra in 2009 in the Nilgiri Mountains.
These important rediscoveries show that there’s always hope of finding lost species. But the Thismia neptunis’ future seems uncertain. That’s because its habitat is under threat due to human developments. As a result, there is fear it could be once again lost, and this time for good.