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There Ought to be a Horror Movie…

...about Today’s Endangered All-Star, Rajah Brooke’s Pitcher Plant. Described in 1859 by Joseph Dalton Hooker, one of the great botanists of the 19th century and a close friend of Charles Darwin, the species was named after James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak. Found on the island of Borneo, this enormous pitcher plant grows only on high slopes of 13,435-foot Mount Kinabalu and neighboring Mount Tambuyukon, in Kinabalu National Park in Malaysia. The plant is found only on so-called “serpentine” soils, high in heavy metals (nickel, chromium) and lacking in essential nutrients like nitrogen. Such soils generally are too toxic for plant life, so this pitcher plant clearly evolved to fill a very special niche indeed. One of the most fascinating of the carnivorous plants, Nepenthes rajah, a vining plant like many of these species, develops enormous, lidded pitcher-like traps that fill with water and digestive fluid, attracting insects, lizards, and possibly even mice and birds that fall in, drown, and are slowly digested. Evidence suggests that these plants may have evolved in tandem with other species, a mutually-beneficial relationship known as “mutualism.” New research has just revealed that Nepenthes rajah may have evolved its large pitchers in just such a mutually-beneficial relationship with tree shrews: The pitchers perfectly accommodate the shrews, which feed on the plant’s nectar, leaving feces behind; the plant then absorbs the shrews’ leavings. For more on this extraordinary find, see the BBC’s “Giant meat-eating plants prefer to eat tree shrew poo.” Check out the wonderful gallery of photographs of Nepenthes species at Mongabay, or visit a great collection of pitcher plants in person at the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers at Golden Gate Park. National Geographic also features carnivorous plants in its April, 2010 issue.
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