Alex Jordan and I were heading into the north to see if we could get some photos of the Nanga female or Anderson male leopard, on a kill they had been found on that morning.
It was still hot, so presuming the leopards would still be relatively inactive, we opted for a more roundabout route to get there, in the hope of finding something else interesting along the way.
Crossing the Sand River, discussing what was probably something to do with the ongoing lion dynamics, we both suddenly suddenly looked at each other and I hit the brakes. The unmistakeable smell of rotting meat had just hit our noses, almost certainly indicating something dead in the vicinity.
That might sound like quite a macabre reason to stop, but a carcass might have meant a kill, which most likely indicated a predator close by.
Reversing back up the road to where we had caught scent of the smell, we both alighted from the Land Rover and began scouring the ground for tracks, either of lion or leopard; the most likely culprits. Our greatest hope was that we might find a drag-mark; a sure sign that a leopard had killed something and then dragged it into cover to stash it.
Looking up and down the road, we were a little disheartened to find no trace of either species. This wasn’t conclusive evidence that neither was close, but strongly suggestive. With the wind coming firmly from the east, we decided to go back to where the smell was the strongest, and simply follow it up wind.
We were doing just that, and were about 15 metres apart, when I noticed some funny looking flowers at the base of a thicket.
At exactly the moment that I asked Alex, “Hey, what are those?”, my curiosity having been raised by the unusual-looking blooms, Alex also spoke, saying, “That smell was exactly like a carrion plant!”.
The penny dropped and we both started laughing as we converged on the plant I had spotted. It was exactly the plant Alex had thought of; Stapelia gigantia, the Carrion plant, and it had properly fooled us.
Also known as the Toad or Starfish plant, this rather impressive succulent produces the enormous flowers seen in the photo above that can be up to 25cm in diameter.
The Carrion in the name comes from the noxious smell that the plant gives off when it flowers; very similar to that of rotting meat. The odour is there to attract flies that act as pollinators, flying in much like they would to a decaying carcass. Investigating the flower, flies or other insects become trapped by a complex structure created by a fusion of the various male and female parts of the flower as well as some additional membranes. A pair of pollen sacs, with a specialized clip attached to them, become attached to the insect as it struggles to free itself. The insect will then inadvertently distribute this pollen to the next flower it visits.
It has been reported that flies are sometimes so deceived by the odour that they lay their eggs around the fleshy corona, convinced that it will be a food source for their hatching larvae. – SP Bester, National Herbarium
Alex and I were pleased to have discovered the source of the smell, but driving away we started wondering just how many times we had searched an area fruitlessly, utterly convinced there was a carcass and maybe a predator hidden there because of the smell, when in actual fact it was a Carrion plant, unobtrusively giving off its scent.
Probably far more times than we’d care to know about…