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.

Hippo Carcass Vultures Hyena Jt

Carcasses will decay readily in the summer months, the smell from which will attract scavengers like spotted hyenas. 

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.

Carrion Plant Jt

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…

About the Author

James Tyrrell

Photographic Guide/Media Team

James had hardly touched a camera when he came to Londolozi, but his writing skills were well developed, and he was quickly snapped up by the Londolozi blog team as a result. An environment rich in photographers helped him develop the photographic skills ...

View James's profile

12 Comments

on Sunday Stories: Fooled by a Plant

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Marinda Drake

This is such an interesting blog. I love gardening, plants and trees of any type. There is so much to learn in nature. Please write more blogs about the plants found in the bush and veld.

Joanne Wadsworth

Mother Nature continues to amaze me with her vast and unusual kingdom of plants that grace this world. Londolozi being no exception. In this case what is fascinating is that a plant is so adapted that it actually emits a scent that is indicative of rotting meat to attract insects! Rotting meat….really! Oh I totally believe you, but how advanced and sophisticated nature has become. The flower is a study unto itself. James, what a fascinating blog you continue to present!

Darlene Knott

That is a beautiful flower! It is amazing how it works to propagate itself. And your story is hilarious! So glad you guys aren’t perfect either!

Ian Hall

I think you missed a trick, this would be a good story for next Sunday – 1st April

James Tyrrell

Haha I didn’t think of that.
I’m sure we can come up with something else though Ian…

Malavika Gupta

James – your articles are gold mines of information. I have always been intrigued by peculiar plants. We had the carnivorous pitcher plant growing in our yard and I remember seeing Venus’s fly trap at a friends, although I don’t think either is naturally found in Africa. I knew of putrid smelling plants – rafflesia being the one most are familiar with – but never knew some species were found in the wild in Africa. I hope I get to see one of these on our next trip over.

Wendy Macnicol

SO interesting, James! I have been in and our of the bush since I was 4 but have never seen one of these plants. I turn 80 on Tuesday 3rd April in about a week’s time so it has been many years off and on in the bush country. We are going to the bush for my birthday. Greatly looking forward to it yet again! Wendy

James Tyrrell

Hi Wendy,

I haven’t seen one for years, so I imagine they aren’t that common!
I hope you have a wonderful time in the bush for your birthday. Whereabouts are you going?
Best regards

Darryl Piggott

So the plant can fool a human nose and fly with it’s smell (may we call it scent?), but doesn’t fool an animal? I guess nature knows that humans don’t eat rotting meat, but it needs the flies to pollinate the flower.

Callum Evans

That is hilarious!! It is that plants job to fool anything that passes by so I wouldn’t feel too bad about it!!

Callum Evans

I wonder if hyenas get confused by it too?

Wendy Hawkins

Oh this is so funny, I can just picture the two of you looking for this “stink”!! 🙂 My neighbour has one & the gecko’s & skinks are also attracted to it as the fruit flies & others are food for them 🙂 Thank you for this very humorous post James

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