Francis E. Putz is a botany professor in the University of Florida’s Biology Department.
As a lotus-lover, I appreciate the dinner-plate-size flowers, tabletop-size leaves and Martian fruits of the lotus and water lilies at Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens. The annual Lotus and Water Lily Festival, celebrated next weekend at Kenilworth, always reminds me of an inspired but rejected hypothesis. Scientists aren’t supposed to favor particular untested hypotheses or mourn those that are rejected, but this one was elegant to an extreme. Had it been supported, my name would be a household word (outside Yiddish-speaking neighborhoods, where it already is).
The hypothesis that data killed was actually posed by one of my undergraduate students. I was staggered when the student, Kristina Zakarkaite, had this great notion, which was wrong but inspired. I’d suggested that she research lotus ecology, but instead she came up with this amazing idea.
There are only two species of lotus on Earth, a pink one in Asia and a yellow one in North America. The Asian species is revered for its magnificent flowers and edible seeds, roots and leaves; the American species is known mostly by naturalists and eaten mostly by muskrats. Zakarkaite proposed that our lotus was introduced 14,000 or so years ago by wanderers from Asia who walked here across the Bering Land Bridge. She supported her hypothesis with the observation that the two species hybridize readily and the seeds can remain dormant for centuries. She temporarily clinched it with a report that chloroplast DNA snippets from the two species are virtually identical.
At the mention of this idea my brain went into overdrive. I conjured an image of mastodon hunters clad in ground sloth fur with pockets full of lotus seeds. For a muddy-booted ecologist such as me to make an evolutionary discovery of this magnitude would be astounding. Elegance in science is admired, but elegance outside one’s core discipline is the best.
You might have noted that in my enthusiasm about the possible origin of the American lotus, I’d lost track of the fact that the idea was Zakarkaite’s, not mine. Worse yet, even after further DNA evidence and some 4 million-year-old lotus fossils from Montana disproved the hypothesis, it still irks me that it wasn’t my idea. So much for me being a dispassionate scientist and supporter of students.
American lotus is scarce at Kenilworth Park, but there are plenty of Asian ones in full bloom. If you’re at the park in the morning when the lotus flowers open, watch for beetles emerging after a night of cavorting. Splash water on the leaves, and watch it bead up and flow off, taking any dirt with it. Nano-bumps on micro-bumps on the leaf surface cause this “superhydrophobicity,” which spawned a revolution in engineered coatings that reduce drag on ship bottoms and protect textiles from staining.
Meanwhile, I’ll hope for a new idea as good as the lotus hypothesis — perhaps the next one will survive scrutiny.