Rat-eating plant named for TV naturalist

Wednesday, Aug 19, 2009  |  Updated 4:45 PM EDT
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A carnivorous pitcher plant big enough to gobble up rats has been named in honor of British TV naturalist David Attenborough.

"It's just a compliment," Attenborough told The Times of London, "but it's very nice to receive compliments."

The plant, discovered on the Philippine island of Palawan during a 2007 scientific expedition and now dubbed Nepenthes attenboroughii, is not so nice: Rodents and insects that fall into the "pitcher" can be trapped and slowly consumed by its flesh-eating enzymes. That ability has led some headline-writers to dub the plant a "Venus Rat-Trap."

British-based Redfern Natural History Productions, which backed the expedition, said the plant appears to live only on the summit of Palawan's Mount Victoria.

Redfern's owner and manager, Stewart McPherson, heard the tales of giant pitcher plants from missionaries who became lost on the mountain back in 2000. He and fellow researchers Alastair Robinson and Volker Heinrich found the previously unknown species and published their description this year in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society.

"The structure of its leaves, pitchers and flowers suggests strongly that it is a close relative of the great Nepenthes rajah from Borneo," Redfern's report on the plant said.

Nepenthes rajah is thought to be the only species of pitcher plant larger than the newly named plant, and in 1862 British naturalist Spencer St. John noted that a drowned rat was found within one of those plants. McPherson told The Times that Nepenthes attenboroughii was "without a shadow of a doubt big enough" to do likewise. "I found a species in Borneo with pitchers half the size with dead mice in it," he said.

 

McPherson said the species name was chosen as "an expression of gratitude" to Attenborough, who has been creating nature documentaries for more than 50 years. One of the best-known TV projects is "The Blue Planet," narrated by Attenborough and co-produced by the BBC and the Discovery Channel.

"He has inspired a generation into protecting the world and developing greater understanding [of the] diversity of the planet," McPherson told The Times.

More on new species | carnivorous plants

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