What Nature's One Win-Lose Proposition Teaches Us



A common feature of intelligent fanatic led organizations are mutually beneficial, or win-win, relationships with all stakeholders: employees, communities, customers, suppliers, etc. Turn anyone of them into a win-lose relationship and success will eventually dissolve. Look to any relationship between other organisms in biology and the same pattern is found.

A classic example is the bee-flower relationship. Bees pollinate flowers helping them reproduce and in return flowers provide bees with nectar (an energy source) and pollen (a source of protein). Beekeepers add themselves into the web by providing beehives to colonies of bees and by giving them care. Humans thus can reap the honey from the bee’s labor. Everyone wins.

There is one exception with a big asterisk. The Titan Arum and other “carrion” flowers live by deceiving insects. They have biologically evolved to fool pollinators to their own benefit, although they do so in a unique way.

Smelly Win-Lose
The Titan Arum is one of the most fascinating plants in nature. Found in the forests of Sumatra, Indonesia, the plant is the tallest unbranched inflorescence (cluster of smaller plants) in the world.

The true stunning feature of the plant is it’s smell.

The odor emitted from the Titan Arum has been described as rotting flesh and other similarly putrid smells. The “corpse”-like smell is to mimic just that, rotting flesh. The Titan Arum has evolved into a unique ecological niche. Their smell attracts beetles and other insects considered “decomposers.”

Sophocles was right that “profit is sweet, even if it comes from deception”, however, the Arum shows us that deception only works in small doses. The plant also reminds us that deception takes significant energy. The Titan Arum lays dormant for three to ten years between each bloom and reproductive attempt. Leaf cycles capture the necessary energy to flower and happen most years. When the flower bloom happens, below to the left, it lasts about 24-48 hours before the leaves fall off. That is a stunningly short time frame to attract pollinators. But the smell is very potent. The plant heats itself up to roughly 100 degrees Fahrenheit to broadcast the stench far enough to attract insect pollinators.

Why does it take three to ten years for the plant to bloom into a flower? This makes total sense if you look at it from the vantage point of an insect. Once at the plant, the insects don’t get the rotting carcass they seek. It’s a lose scenario for them. If the Titan Arum, or other “carrion” flowers, bloomed often, then pollinators would get the ruse. They’d learn to avoid the Titan Arum, and the Titan would not be able to reproduce.

So if you see a stinky win-lose relationship like the Titan Arum in the business world, avoid it. Humans are too greedy to have the patience to deceive others in small doses over multi-year time frames like the Titan Arum.

Below is a time-lapse of the Titan Arum’s bloom.

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