Orchids mimic simians

May 28, 2012 • 5:10 am

Unless small monkeys try to copulate with orchids, this isn’t an evolved mimicry, but the resemblance is remarkable. Here is Dracula simia from the cloud forests of Ecuador, often called the “monkey orchid” for obvious reasons.  But, as I note below, another orchid species is the one that’s most commonly given that name.

Another photo, this one taken by Eric Hunt:

The genus Dracula is quite diverse, with many beautiful species. You can see many of them here. I expect Lou Jost will have a few words about these.

Here’s what is most often meant when someone says “monkey orchid.” It’s the European Orchis simia, which gets its name because the flowers look like groups of dancing monkeys, complete with head, four limbs, and a small tail (e.g., this photo from Wikipedia). It’s said to be “a favorite with children.”

UPDATE:  Lou, as expected, has weighed in on the species (see comments), and kindly provided two more pictures of Dracula that he took himself. Here are his comments (flowers in order):

Here are a couple more Dracula pics if you like. The Dracula fuligifera is actually a scan of the flower. It is endemic to my study area near Banos, Ecuador. The other one is also a form endemic to my area near Banos, most like D. exasperata from Colombia but without its hairs. Both occur in EcoMinga’s Rio Zunac Reserve.

Dracula fuligifera
Dracula exasperata (perhaps)


26 thoughts on “Orchids mimic simians

  1. That first picture made my day. That is absolutely amazing. What kind of selection pressures could shape a flower to have that appearance?

      1. “It can only be cal-draculated via the Gary Oldman selection coefficient.” — that was so funny I really had a hearty laugh!!! you made my day!! Thanks!!!

  2. Draculas are really interesting. They are actually pollinated by female fungus gnats which think the lip (the white thing in the center) is a mushroom. They smell like mushrooms too. My friend Lorena Endara patiently studied the pollination of these in their cloud forest homes, and she discovered that many seemingly trivial little details of the flower played important roles in the pollination process. For example, there are little notches that appear useless but are used as tiny footholds by the pollinator.

    Remember the discussion of drift and stasis for ancient harvestmen a week or two ago? The lack of change in seemingly trivial details of spine arrangements suggested that drift plays little role in their placement, and that they serve some function. Thanks to Lorena, these Draculas are nice examples of how such seemingly trivial details often turn out to have functions. I suspect genetic drift will become a “god of the gaps” kind of explanation for physical features of organisms, with steadily shrinking domain as we learn more….

    PS Top photo is not Dracula simia.

    1. Lorena’s article is available online:

      Endara L., D. A. Grimaldi , B. A. Roy. 2010. Lord of the flies: Pollination of Dracula orchids. Lankesteriana. 10(1):1-11

  3. Dracula orchids are not pollinated by monkeys but by fungus gnats, which mistake the lip of the orchid for a fungus (see e.g. this publication).

    The genus was named for its rather sinister flowers; among the species are Dracula vampira and Dracula vlad-tepes (you may want to read about vlad tepes if you like a true horror story).

    1. To be accurate, those flies are not true fungus gnats, but drosophilid flies (which should appeal to Jerry).

  4. i used to grow about a dozen different draculas, as well as numerous madevallias. even in western washington state it was difficult, in the summer time, to keep them cool and humid enough to thrive. some of them are extraordinarily beautiful.

  5. Obviously a case of the Doctrine of Signatures. Dracula is, without a shadow of doubt, a cure for monkeys.

  6. Awesome post! Quick information about Draculas, many species are narrow endemics, and the pollinators, small Zygothrica’s that look superficially as fruit flies, are incredibly diverse, from my study almost every second species was new. Let me know if you want pictures to complement this post, but most of the pictures are in the paper that Lou mentioned.
    Pleurothallids are fun!

  7. It appears that the “eyes” of the “monkey” are formed by two greatly reduced petals. Can anyone confirm? They do seem to be structures, and from the photos I can’t see what else they could be.

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