MSc Dissertation Examines the “Delicious Smell of Death”
Flowers which mimic the smell of carrion and faeces were under the spotlight in research work done by Mr Marc du Plessis for his MSc in Ecological Sciences degree!
Du Plessis focused his research on pollination ecology and, in particular, the pollination ecology of two carrion/faeces mimicking plants, examining the functional significance of the unusual floral traits – both visual and olfactory – associated with the attraction of flies as pollinators.
‘I have always been interested in stapeliads, which is the group of plants I studied,’ explained du Plessis. ‘I was a collector even before I enrolled for postgraduate studies.’
This interest in succulent stapeliads is visually evident in the form of a large tattoo of a stapeliad flower on his arm.
‘The significance of my research is that we are getting closer to understanding the pollination of carrion or faeces mimicking flowers. This is a very complex system and one that we are far from fully understanding,’ said du Plessis.
Du Plessis was supervised by Dr Adam Shuttleworth and co-supervised by Professor Steve Johnson of UKZN and Professor Sue Nicolson of the University of Pretoria. ‘All three of my supervisors played major roles and are great inspirations to myself and other young students,’ he said.
Du Plessis chose to do his Masters at UKZN because of the world-renowned reputation of its Pietermaritzburg-based botany laboratories headed by Johnson – the South African Research Chair for Evolutionary Biology and an NRF A-rated researcher.
‘Marc certainly had an unusual project,’ said Shuttleworth. ‘Studying flowers which mimic carrion and faeces lent a somewhat macabre aspect to some of his data collection. When he wasn’t studying the pollination biology of plants in the field, he would spend time trying to recreate dead rotting animals – using pieces of animal hide and a mix of rotten fish and chicken livers – in order to explore how flies respond to different aspects of carrion.’
Shuttleworth explained just how dedicated du Plessis was in his attempts to understand the characteristics of carrion or faeces which his flowers mimicked: ‘He even convinced an academic at the University of Pretoria to let him balance chunks of rotten ox liver and different faeces on her spectrometer in order to measure their colours for comparison with his flowers!’
Johnson said there were some anxious times during du Plessis’s research. ‘A low moment for him was when his collection of pinned insect pollinators which he had stored in old pizza boxes was inadvertently thrown away by his father!’ he recalled.
Fortunately, du Plessis was able to recover from this disaster and successfully complete his thesis. His plans for the future involve continuing with his PhD studies. ‘Hopefully one day I will be able to hold an academic or research position at a respectable university,’ he said.
‘I think UKZN is an amazing university, often overlooked among the South African elites. I honestly believe the University and specifically the academia, do not get the recognition they deserve,’ said du Plessis.
He enjoys open water swimming and is currently training to complete the Robben Island to Cape Town race in April next year.
Words by: Sally Frost
Photograph by: Abhi Indrarajan