As a science journalist, I'm used to dealing with an awful lot of hype. New species are no exception: When a researcher discovers something hitherto unknown to science, their affiliated institutions will try everything short of run into the newsroom doing jazz hands to get us to cover it. So when I see a press release about how a newly discovered species of orchid looks like the devil, I'm skeptical. So skeptical.
This flower looks like the devil, for real.
Or at least some kind of scary troll. Maybe a sea monster? That guy Pete from the Goofy movies? We're not really sure, but boy oh boy, is that a scary face in that there flower. The species even has "clawed" petals to boot.
"In the most recent catalogue of Colombian plants almost 3600 orchid species representing nearly 250 genera are included," the researchers wrote in the journal PhytoKeys. "However, there is no doubt that hundreds of species occurring in this country remain undiscovered. Only in 2015 over 20 novelties were published based on material collected in Colombia."
For now, diabolicus has only ever been found in one location: a swath of dwarf montane forest at the border between Putumayo and Nariño departments in southern Colombia. The scientists who discovered it found just 30 individual plants, only several of which were flowering adults, so the vibrant maroon orchid has been listed as a critically endangered species in the IUCN Red List. Unfortunately, all of these flowers live in an unstable habitat — near the main road Pasto-Mocoa. The researchers expect upcoming construction to disrupt flora in the area.
It's likely that the orchid's gorgeous (and creepy) coloring is the result of natural selection. Patterns emerge thanks to lucky mutations; then they're reinforced and become more common — and specific — in the population as those with start to outlive those without. The orchid probably wasn't seeking favor from the underworld, but from some species of insect (like an orchid bee) that pollinates it. Orchids have a long history of evolving to look attractive to various insects. They can so closely mimic specific species that males will land on them and attempt to mate, unwittingly pollinating the bug-like blossoms.
And seeing faces in things is just what humans do. We spot mice on Mars, Jesus on toast and demons in our flowers. Pareidolia — seeing a pattern or shape where none exists — is so common that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of websites dedicated to documenting "faces in things" like buildings and power outlets.
Some experts think that the phenomenon is prevalent because we're hardwired by evolution to go looking for human faces. Without that tendency, we might have trouble recognizing the complex marriage of features that mark a human individual. It might also have something to do with the way we process new information in general. We like to look for familiar things, because that way we can adapt to new situations more quickly. Sometimes that means "recognizing" a familiar thing that isn't actually there.
"We've evolved brains that think in these quick, dirty ways that are usually right, but at times can lead us to systematically be biased," Christopher French of the British Psychological Society told the BBC in 2013. "A classic example is the Stone Age guy standing there, scratching his beard, wondering whether that rustling in the bushes really is a sabre-toothed tiger. You're much more likely to survive if you assume it's a sabre-toothed tiger and get the hell out of there — otherwise you may end up as lunch."
And as we frequently say on the Internet, you just can't ever unsee it.