The egg-plant, Ovus plantus (not to be confused with the eggplant, Solanum melongena), is one of the curiosities that make biology interesting, and prove that real life will always refuse to fit into the categories we provide.
First discovered in Sri-Lanka in 1857, the egg-plant has been largely ignored by the scientific community, mainly because of the challenge of classifying it accurately. On the few occasions that it was mentioned, the utter lack of description on part of the authors (“...often found near the rather peculiar plant that the locals refer to as egg-plant.”for example, is the only mention made of it by what is otherwise considered a reference in tropical botany, Vegétation Sri-Lankaise by Jean-Bouis de la Foune, Éd. Gaillard, 1905) led people to believe they had simply misspelled “eggplant”. In recent years, however, a few biologists have taken a new look at this extravagant organism.
The egg-plant, as its name suggests, is a plant that has, well, eggs. Instead of fruits, its flower will produce between twenty and thirty eggs. Approximately one week after flowering, the eggs will hatch, birthing tiny organisms which resemble snails. These “snails” will then disperse, and, once they have found an appropriate habitat (the egg-plant prefers soils rich in decomposing matter), burrow into the soil and germinate. A year later, they will bear a flower in turn, and the process starts over.
Event though its “adult” form suggests plant-like nutrient absorption, the egg-plant takes its nourishment from decomposing animal carcasses. Its roots exude a powerful smell, which will attract the organisms in the soil. Upon contact, however, they release a strong neurotoxine, immobilizing, and then killing, their prey. Ingestion of the egg-plant is fatal even in small doses.
Early approaches at classification placed the egg-plant next to other toxic plants of the region, notably Adenia hondala. More recent studies, however, involving genetic analysis, have disproved this classification, and determined once and for all that the egg-plant is, in fact, no plant at all.
Despite what its greenish coloring may lead to believe, the egg-plant does not contain any chloroplasts. Instead, it stores little “bags” of pigments in its cells, which have been mistaken for chloroplasts by earlier scientists, partly because of less powerful microscopes, and partly because they fit into conventional thinking. But as has now been proven, egg-plants are closely related to jellyfish.
Jellyfish spend their life in two states: free-swimming (the jellyfish, or medusa) and stationary (the polyp). It was this resemblances in life-cycles that first led Jack Russel, from the California Institute of Lost Species (CALS), to look in the right direction.
After a lengthy study of the species, which involved genetic analyses of over two-thousand specimens, it has now been determined that the egg-plant is indeed a descendant of the jellyfish, who has made the leap from the sea to the land almost sixty million years ago, shortly after the dinosaurs were wiped from the face of the earth.
Despite its toxicity, or maybe because of it, the egg-plant holds a special place in Sri-Lankan culture, where it is both revered and feared. Revered because areas around it are mostly clean of vermin, who do not go near it due to its toxicity (or end up being eaten by it), and feared because of the lethal effect of its poison. A number of accounts confirm that at one point, human sacrifices were made in its honor, since people believed that planting and egg-plant on top of a fresh corpse would enhance its powers. Technically speaking, they were right.
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