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The monkeyflower species Mimulus pictus, with a unique pattern displayed on the petals.

Old math reveals new secrets about these alluring flowers

A model developed by Alan Turing can help explain the spots on these astoundingly diverse flowers—and many other natural patterns as well.

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Scientists who study monkeyflowers sometimes feel as though the plants are looking back at them. The blooms are said to resemble the faces of playful monkeys—hence the name—complete with a speckled central region that looks like a gaping mouth, helping bees zero in on their nectar-rich targets.

“It's like a friendly smile indicating safe harbor for pollinators,” says Benjamin Blackman, a plant biologist at the University of California, Berkeley. By attracting these pollinating insects, the speckled petals help ensure the plants will go on to bloom another day.

“The color contrast makes pollination more efficient, more effective,” says Yaowu Yuan, a biologist at the University of Connecticut.

To Yuan, who’s devoted the past decade of his life to studying monkeyflowers, these spotted petals aren’t just eye candy for insects. They’re a botanical example of patterns found across the tree of life. From the evenly spaced striations of seashells to the stripes that adorn zebra flanks, all of these patterns may be created from some of the same evolutionary building blocks.

In a recent study, Yuan and his colleagues showed that...

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