Remarkable Species

March 2019

Fairy lantern, Thismia neptunis

Thisma neptunis Thismia neptunis is a tiny plant with an strange life-style. It was described in 1866 and not found for 151 years. The Thismiaceae, or fairy lanterns, live in the leaf-litter in tropial Asian forests. They are mycoheterotrophs: the plant lacks cholorophyll and obtains its nutrition by an association between its roots and fungi. These fungal-plant interactions are normally symbiotic, where the plant obtains inorganic nutrients from the fungus, which in turn takes carbohydrates from the plant. In these mycoheterotrophs however, the plant has no carbohydrate to give, and is just taking nutrients from the fungus, which is in turn taking carbohydrate from another plant. This is a rather stange sort of indirect parasitism by the fairy lantern.

Nearly half of the 76 Thismia species have only been discovered in the last decade, at least in part because they are tiny, easily overlooked and only flower occasionally. T. neptunis was first found in April 1866 in the Matang area of Sarawak, and then again in January 2017 in the same area. It is just 9cm tall, with rather strange flowers: a fused tube with three long filaments.

Thismia are mainly found in south-east Asia and Australasia with a few species in the Americas. They belong to the family Thismiaceae or are a group within the family Burmanniaceae. The latter are not all mycoheterotrophs, but the strategy seems to have evolved separately at least six times in the family.

Source: Sochori et al. 2018. Rediscovery of Thismia neptunis (Thismiaceae) after 151 years. Phytotaxa 340(1): 71-78

Photo from Schori et al. 2018

Remarkable Species Archive


Justin Gerlach by e-mail