Animal, mineral or vegetable?

Animal, mineral or vegetable? If you can guess the identity of the object in this image, leave a hint or a cool fact in the comments (but try not to give the game away)! 

Story (and Hint): It was January, 1862 when Charles Darwin first laid eyes on a specimen of the Madagascar orchid Angraecum sesquipedale and exclaimed, “Good Heavens”. He went on to predict that an object like the one in this photo would be found. A few years later, Alfred Wallace agreed with Darwin’s hypothesis, saying of the orchid, “I maintain…that the laws of multiplication, variation, and survival of the fittest, already referred to, would under certain conditions necessarily lead to the production of this extraordinary XXX”. Wallace made a drawing of his prediction, and was proved correct a few decades later.  

Photo attribution: Steve Gschmeissner

#ScienceEveryday   #ISeeTheWorldWithScience  

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80 Responses to Animal, mineral or vegetable?


  1. It’s nowhere near bigger than a breadbox. 😉

  2. Rajini Rao says:


    Valdis Kletnieks , it can indeed be very long! Not quite like a loaf of French bread, though 🙂


  3. From the back story, I know it has to do with oral sex between different species.  But what this cunning picture is about, I am not sure, except that these are not real colors.

  4. Rajini Rao says:


    Pseudocolored scanning electron micrograph, for those interested. Hmm, interspecies sex is a tad sensationalistic  🙂


  5. I think I have an idea of what it is but not 100%, an insect comes to mind when I see this.

  6. Rajini Rao says:


    Good start, what sort of insect..anyone? 

  7. Bill Carter says:


    Somebody had fun with photoshop! Other than that, the spiral shape seems evocative of something that can be unfurled.

  8. Rajini Rao says:


    Excellent observation, William Carter .The unfurling is “powered” by a sac that can contract and expand. 


  9. The end of the curled shape is clearly where the action is.

  10. U-Ming Lee says:


    Since we’re talking about something that can be unfurled, this makes me think of a tongue. Those green structures are probably taste buds of some sort.

  11. Rajini Rao says:


    Vincent Tijms , those blue-green things at the end drive our species to create gustatory delights. 

  12. Rajini Rao says:


    Good deduction, U-Ming Lee . Technically, not a tongue (at least, I don’t think so) but a related part. 

  13. Fred Gandt says:


    An image from a remake of Adaptation starring the lead singer of Kiss?

  14. Rajini Rao says:


    Thex Dar , you are astute 🙂 They make excellent subjects for images. 


    Fred Gandt , the event that Wallace and Darwin referred to could be considered a version of a kiss. 


  15. It is indeed a probing question Rajini Rao 


  16. I so love your posts on everyday science 🙂

  17. Rajini Rao says:


    So literally true, Boney Kuriakose 😉


    I’m glad that mine is a more decent length…


  18. What is the scale of this image?

  19. Rajini Rao says:


    Time for another hint: a sweet reward awaits the tip of this object (remember the orchid?). 

  20. Rajini Rao says:


    William Rutiser , unfortunately the scale was not specified for this particular image. I will say that the object can be as long as 10 inches, in some species. On the other end of  the scale, the little green/blue things in the image are microscopic. (This is a scanning EM, by the way). 


  21. A flower’s ATTRACTIVE part 

  22. Rajini Rao says:


    Vinay Krrishna , it is something that gets to the flower’s attractive part 😉 But, it’s not a flower part. 


  23. Its a SEM image..does that mean …..”you blew up the kid”?

  24. Rajini Rao says:


    An living creature do expire before an SEM is taken, Boney Kuriakose , but the blowing up is only on the computer screen, I hope! 


  25. Is it a flying critter who drinks what flowers make?


  26. So this would be an example of proboscopic imaging?

  27. E.E. Giorgi says:


    wow, that’s awesome! I know, I never leave a hint because I never have a clue, I just stare in awe! 🙂

  28. Ant i says:


    proboscis for a butterfly for reaching into a trumpeted type flower…13 cm or so?

  29. Rajini Rao says:


    Zach Walter , your confusion is understandable since I was trying not to make this too easy 🙂 The orchid inspired Darwin to predict the existence of a species with this object. 

  30. Rajini Rao says:


    E.E. Giorgi , I love your photography, and stare in awe too 🙂


    Got to agree with Tom Willingham on that. 

  31. Ant i says:


    Captain morgan…lol

  32. Ron Hunt says:


    I’ve never seen a photo like this one but I take it this is the business end of the Hawk Moth that pollinates   Angraecum sesquipedale.


    BTW… I love angraecums. 

  33. Rob Edouard says:


    if it were on a human it would be  around –  25 to 40 feet?


  34. I Think this a macro shot of a flowers central part containing of the protrusive stamen and stigmas


  35. Could this be a proboscis of a moth Or a butterfly even ?

  36. Rajini Rao says:


    Robert Edouard , oh no! I think our DNA may stretch that far but not this body part 🙂

  37. Rajini Rao says:


    Merry Welly , I learned something about orchid roots..I’ll have to look that up! But, no…you need to probe more for the answer. It’s the answer to the evo-devo story as you guessed. Think of something than unfurls to get to the orchid. 

  38. Rajini Rao says:


    Tom Willingham , thanks for the link! I guess we would have to pool several cells, unwind their chromosomes, concatenate the DNA so as to reach 25-40 feet. Any idea how long our intestines are? 

  39. Rajini Rao says:


    Much obliged, Tom Willingham .


    [I’m at work (checking in briefly), or I would have dug out the info myself.]

  40. Rajini Rao says:


    Not an earthworm, Shane Copen . Think of something that can fly to the orchid. 

  41. Rajini Rao says:


    Thank you, Tom Willingham . I will be forced to take retirement if I don’t get through my To Do list for the day 😉


  42. Orange you glad you don’t have to work so hard for your food?


    (Sorry, the punster in me couldn’t resist the predominant colour there).


    I’d have guessed animal, but more likely to have guessed an insect eye if I hadn’t cunningly read the prior comments. 🙂

  43. Rajini Rao says:


    Drew Sowersby , ah yes, but which someone? 😉 


    Jyoti Dahiya , on the Community share, someone picked sunflower with seeds…going by the color as well. 

  44. Rajini Rao says:


    Rombaut Verdonck , also known as Morgan’s Sphinx (that is vague enough also, to not give the answer right out). Thanks! 

  45. Anand V.L. says:


    Rajini Rao This post is brilliant!! Thanks a TON!!! Could u pls tell me where u got this pic 

  46. Anand V.L. says:


    As a kid, I always saw them whiz around and thought they were humming birds of some sort! But looking closer I realized they weren’t.

  47. Rajini Rao says:


    Tsk, Drew Sowersby . I knew that 😉


    Here is the original pix with caption: http://fineartamerica.com/featured/5-moth-proboscis-sem-steve-gschmeissner.html

  48. Rajini Rao says:


    Answer: Thanks for playing, everybody!  There were some creative guesses that included a sunflower with seeds, a curled earthworm, fennel seeds, a snake without scales, and a kiwi (?!). As many of you correctly deduced from the clues (or reverse Google Image search!), this is the proboscis of a moth. The blue/green spiky things are sensillae or taste buds. Kept curled up when not in use, the moth proboscis can be extended to pierce a fruit, delve into the depths of a flower for nectar, or even suck tears from a bird’s eye (yes, really!). 


    The story in my post refers to the unusual length- 30 cm, of the flower now known as Darwin’s orchid. Darwin realized that the pollinator would have to have a proboscis long enough to reach the nectar, and in doing so, pick up pollen grains to fertilize other orchids. Read the story of the African Hawkmoth here: http://wallacefund.info/darwin-and-wallaces-predictions-come-true-0

  49. Fred Gandt says:


    Terrible quality, but: Adaptation Spike Jonze { Charles Darwin Evolutieleer } 2002
    That’s how I knew 🙂


    Awesome film.


  50. Awww, I missed out on the fun 😦 Rajini Rao Do you have a set schedule for doing these challenges,  or a notifcation circle perhaps so I dont miss future ones?

  51. Rajini Rao says:


    The poetic version! Thank you, Fred Gandt , for the link 🙂

  52. Rajini Rao says:


    Chris Mallory , these guessing games do tend to focus on bugs, albeit unintentionally (it’s just that moths and insects make such good subjects, as I’m sure you know). No set schedule (depends on when I see the next awesome image)..but I’ll tag you impertinently next time 🙂


  53. Oh, bugs definitely make some of the best subjects 🙂 But bugs or not, the two of these that you’ve done so far have been fun so I look forward to the next 🙂

  54. Rajini Rao says:


    Indeed, there are  “hummingbird moths”, Drew Sowersby . I think the Hawk moth (Morgan’s Sphinx) of this story is one, let me check. 


  55. Hawk Moth / Sphinx Moth / Hummingbird Moth are all different names for the moths in the family Sphingidae, though “hummingbird moth” may often be reserved specifically for those in the genus Hemaris.

  56. Rajini Rao says:


    The names are confusing, but they are all equally gorgeous. Macroglossum stellatarum was the one that popped up in my search. Thanks, Chris Mallory .

  57. Rajini Rao says:


    Delightful watches, thanks for the links Drew Sowersby .


  58. Rajini Rao Excellent experiment in Gamification…..that is what we call it.


    You are a master of not just science (well you are doctor there 🙂 ) but also in social behavior.


    I know MIke Elgan does this mystery photo things…you too?


    Enjoyed reading post and comments too.

  59. Rajini Rao says:


    mandar khadilkar , gamification sounds so hip. Yes, this is a version of mystery photo or MysteryMonday , but with science thrown in! 


  60. Wikipedia meaning Rajini Rao


    Gamification is the use of game thinking and game mechanics in a non-game context to engage users and solve problems.[1][2][3] Gamification is used in applications and processes to improve user engagement, Return on Investment, data quality, timeliness, and learning.[4] The word was coined by Nick Pelling, a British-born computer programmer and inventor.[5]

  61. Rajini Rao says:


    Engagement is the name of the game, mandar khadilkar ! What’s tough in classrooms these days is that all our lectures are videotaped and available to grad students to play at 4x speed in the middle of the night before the exam! Most don’t show up to class anymore, so I’ve been wondering how to add value to the classroom experience. 

  62. Rajini Rao says:


    Tom Willingham , yes..only about 25% show up for a 9 am lecture. Since we are teaching adults, we’re not going to take attendance, but it does make me wonder if I should not show up either and just upload the lecture. They only take one lecture a day in their first year (or two)..the rest of the time is spent in lab. 

  63. Rajini Rao says:


    Actually, my students do “Google” solutions whereas I look on PubMed 🙂 


    It’s a challenge, to be sure.

  64. Rajini Rao says:


    We don’t check for plagiarism. We don’t have the tools nor the time; besides they are old enough to know better. So we have them sign an honor code, teach ethics courses and let them know that plagiarism leads to dismissal. It works remarkably well, for the most part.  

  65. Rajini Rao says:


    Exactly, Tom Willingham . I need to remind myself of that every so often 🙂

  66. Doc Rajani says:


    Rajini Rao….excellent post….thx a lot!!


  67. Moth proboscis. Coloured scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of the tip of a coiled proboscis of a moth (order Lepidoptera). The proboscis is an elongated hollow tube (yellow), used to suck up nectar and other liquids. The tip has sensilla (blue), insect sensory organs. These sensilla let the moth taste its food.

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