Mesmerizing photo shows weird, scowling parasitic plant that looks like a owl

An owl-shaped bloom of a parasitic plant, glowing green against a black background.
Photographer Chatree Lertsintanakorn snapped the mesmerizing image in a secluded wildlife sanctuary in Thailand. (Image credit: Chatree Lertsintanakorn/WNPA)

A bizarre, parasitic plant that looks like a scowling owl has won a global photography contest for the best snapshot of a plant or fungus. Nestled in dark soil, the "owl" glows an eerie emerald, according to the World Nature Photography Awards.

Photographer Chatree Lertsintanakorn snapped the mesmerizing image in a secluded wildlife sanctuary in Thailand, where the miniscule plants' blooming bodies pop out of the ground at the base of trees. 

The plant, Thismia thaithongiana, is a myco-heterotrophic species, meaning it doesn't photosynthesize but obtains its energy and nutrients from fungi — more specifically the fungus associated with the roots of trees. In 2018, scientists discovered it in the Doi Hua Mot Mountains in Thailand.

Little is known about this plant, but its peculiar shaped body has led to its name,"Phisawong Ta Nok Hook," which translates to "mysterious owl's eye," according to Nation Thailand.

T. thaithongiana spends most of its life underground until it bursts up, revealing its peculiar fruiting body. 

Lertsintanakorn learned about the rare species while meeting with photographer Suchat Chanhomhuan, one of its discoverers.

Related: 'Hauntingly beautiful' image of a golden horseshoe crab wins wildlife photography competition

With the help of Chanhomhuan, Lertsintanakorn located the plant in the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in Thailand's Tak Province. "I noticed it grew primarily near the base of trees, making it easy to overlook," Lertsintanakorn told Live Science in an email. 

Its location is prime real estate for the tiny parasite. In general, some species of fungus live around and inside the roots of enormous trees. They produce an underground network in search of minerals that they pass on to the trees. In return, trees give them nutritious sugars — in an alliance known as a symbiotic relationship.

T. thaithongiana interrupts this relationship by stealing the nutrients produced by the fungi.

T. thaithongiana is only visible when its fruiting body grows out of the ground, and even then, it is incredibly tiny. "I was surprised by its diminutive size, measuring a mere 2 to 8 millimeters [0.08 to 0.3 inch] in length," he said. Lertsintanakorn's image was awarded Gold in the Plants and Fungi category in the World Nature Photography Awards. Founded in 2020, the competition is now in its fifth year with over 3,000 image entries this year. 

"Our winners never fail to take our breath away with their stunning images. As always, it's such a joy to see the amazing caliber of entries into the awards," said Adrian Dinsdale, cofounder of the World Nature Photography Awards in a statement.

Other notable images from the competition include a haunting collection of olive baboon (Papio anubis) heads and skulls at the Abomey voodoo market in Benin, an orca (Orcinus orca) splitting a herring ball underwater, and a group of crabs grabbing onto the lava rock-encrusted shoreline under a wave of water.

Elise Poore
Editorial executive

Elise studied marine biology at the University of Portsmouth in the U.K. She has worked as a freelance journalist focusing on the aquatic realm. Elise is working with Live Science through Future Academy, a program to train future journalists on best practices in the field.