Megan Marchica, Master’s student – AY 2021/22

Urban ecology of skunk cabbage

The eastern skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is a weird and wonderful plant. Why? Well, how about the fact that it blooms in late winter, even when the ground is still snow-covered? It bears yellow flowers on a whitish inflorescence (the spadix), which is surrounded by a mottled, purplish leaf-like structure (the spathe). And, as its scientific name implies, the flowers reek of rotting flesh, which attract its insect pollinators and may ward off herbivores. Weirder still is the fact that the spadix produces its own heat and can be 35º above ambient temperature. So, like endothermic animals, this plant exhibits thermogenesis, a trait that is hypothesised to serve one or more of these functions:

  1. Ward off cold damage to the plant.
  2. Enable the plant to bloom earlier in the season.
  3. Enhance transmission of the scent to attract more insects.
  4. Create a cozy environment for pollinators.

Eastern skunk cabbage grows in wet soils in and around New York City (NYC), where urbanisation has altered the environment in some stereotypical ways. Here are three. First, with all the impervious surfaces, runoff tends to be high, so urban soils tend to experience drought as well as big biogeochemical changes. Next, there is NYC’s strong urban heat island. That’s the phenomenon whereby cities are warmer than outlying areas. Kind of like a microcosm of global warming. Finally, the species composition of pollinator assemblages may shift in cities.

To our knowledge, the urban ecology of eastern skunk cabbage has never been studied. Meg is most curious about its distribution along the urban gradient, which insects pollinate it and how urbanisation (especially the heat island) impacts thermogenesis.