What Is a Caruncle?

Warts are the common name for the round, fleshy lumps that can form anywhere on the skin, stemming from a few types of bacterial infections. For centuries, caruncle was the more established way to refer to these growths, stemming from the Latin caruncula, meaning "little piece of flesh." The French still call the wart a caruncle. The term is used in modern-day English to point to three parts of human anatomical existence: the red corners of the eyes, the underside of the tongue, and as a type of wart that can form at the urethal opening.

In modern medicine, when a type of wart forms near the opening of the urethra, in a reddish tint, physicians refer to it as a urethral caruncle. This condition is most prevalent in women after menopause, and may or may not be painful. These growths are often removed in a surgical procedure, with estrogen-infused creams or special bath salts applied to lessen any swelling.

The word caruncle can be used to refer to a handful of biological manifestations. In the plant kingdom, a caruncle is a knotted growth that can appear on some types of seeds. It is also an important sensory organ on the rear section of some worms or the wattle section of some birds' beaks.

This early definition spawned a variety of outgrowths through history. One of the primary users of the term caruncle in 2011 are botanists, who label warts on some seeds this way. These horn-tipped growths are common to a few types of plant seeds from the Euphorbia and Jatropha generas. In all other types of plants, these warts are known as elaiosome. Packed with nutrients, these elaiosome or caruncles attract ants, which carry the seeds back to their larvae for a meal. This symbiotically helps to distribute the seeds to other fertile underground areas.

Biologists have labeled a few animal parts caruncle, too, perhaps for where or how they appear in nature. The rear section of worms from the Annelid family, called the caruncle, has some sensory functions, but not as heightened as their head, or prostomium, sections. The term also can be used to describe the red, fleshy wattle that forms about the heads of birds like pheasants, roosters and turkeys.

The word caruncle is not just used as a noun. When a caruncle is forming, according to the World Book dictionary, it can be said to be "carunculating." The seed, skin or wattle can also be "carunculated" or "caruncular." As of 2011, caruncle has not become a slang term for disgusting.

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