Science Notebook: One man's stinky fungi is another's honour

Click to follow
The Independent Online

One of the perks of being a scientist is that, occasionally, it is possible to have something named after you. It could be a seminal theory, a physical law, a building, or even a star.

Biologists have the added advantage of being able to call a living organism after someone if that person is deemed important enough, which is why a number of species have been named after the likes of Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace and David Attenborough.

Step forward Robert Drewes, the curator of herpetology at the California Academy of Sciences, who has just had a new species of fungus named after him. The toadstool, which is actually a type of fungus known as a stinkhorn (pictured), is formally described in the latest issue of the journal Mycologia.

The stinkhorn in question grows two inches long, is shaped like an erect phallus and smells of rotting flesh. Despite its uncanny resemblance to the male appendage, and its appalling smell, Dr Drewes is reported to be chuffed to know that the latest member of the fungus family, Phallus drewesii, bears his name.

The idea came from a couple of mycologist colleagues who wanted to celebrate Dr Drewes' role in inspiring researchers to survey the wildlife of equatorial islands off the west coast of Africa, where the fungus was found protruding priapically from a dead log. A true scientist, Dr Drewes takes the view that giving his name to a diminutive, smelly, phallus-shaped fungus is an honour rather than an insult.

"I am utterly delighted," he told his local newspaper, even if it does mean that he will forever be known for his two-inch, smelly phallus.

Let's keep Britain less tidy

A couple of weeks ago I found myself driving through the breathtakingly beautiful countryside of eastern Slovakia and was struck by the blizzards of butterflies fluttering over the roads and fields. Perhaps it's rose-tinted spectacles, but it reminded me of my childhood when butterflies and bees seemed to be a far more common sight than they are today.

One thing I did notice about the roadside verges and town parks in this undiscovered part of Eastern Europe is that the grass is allowed to grow to the point where it flowers and seeds. It was rare to see the sort of close-cropped lawns that are so much a feature of British town parks, and even countryside verges.

The visual effect of having grassy verges, mingled with clovers and wild flowers, growing a foot or more high was charmingly attractive. But more important, these grassy oases next to roads and pavements were full of bees and butterflies. It did seem to me that the British obsession with keeping things tidy is not helping the survival of our most beautiful and important insects which need to feed on the wild flowers we so often call "weeds".