Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Little Shop of Horrors Revisited

All photos taken by co-discoverer Stewart McPherson

The Little Shop of Horrors. A cult classic among movie buffs about a plant shop and the man-eating pitcher plants in the back room.

Pitcher plants have long fascinated mankind with their ability to digest meat. Most pitcher plants are like the “Venus Flytrap” of our youth that trapped and ate flies. As a child, I watched in amazement as the plant snapped its leaves shut when something landed on them and wondered how they could digest meat. The kind of stuff nightmares could be made of.

At a time when new species seem to be discovered at a fantastic rate, another new species of pitcher plant has been discovered in the highlands of the central Philippines. This newly-discovered giant carnivorous plant is among the largest of all pitchers with enough size to catch rats as well as the traditional insects.

The botanists who discovered the plant have named it after the British natural history broadcaster David Attenborough.

The newly discovered giant pitcher (Nepenthes attenboroughii).

They published details of the discovery in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society earlier this year.

Rumours of this new species of pitcher plant first began in 2000 after two Christian missionaries attempted to scale Mount Victoria. Mount Victoria is not generally accessible to the public without special permission owing to the difficulty of the ascent. There is no designated route (or route of any kind) to the summit, and, as such, it is necessary to ascend the mountain by walking up river-beds prone to flash flooding. Attempts to reach the peak have resulted in a number of deaths.

With little preparation, our intrepid missionaries attempt to climb the mountain becoming lost for 13 days before being rescued from the slopes. However, they returned with tales of a never-before-seen large carnivorous pitcher plant.

That pricked the interest of three exceptional botanists. They are natural history explorer Stewart McPherson of Red Fern Natural History Productions, Poole, Dorset, UK; independent botanist Alastair Robinson, formerly of the University of Cambridge, UK; and, Volker Heinrich, of Bukidnon Province, the Philippines.

All three are pitcher plant experts and are no strangers to travelling to remote locations in the search for new species. So in 2007, they set off on a two-month expedition to the Philippines, which included an attempt at scaling Mount Victoria to find this exotic new plant.

Big enough to drown a rat.

Accompanied by three guides, the team hiked through lowland forest, finding large stands of a pitcher plant known to science called Nepenthes philippinensis, as well as strange pink ferns and blue mushrooms which they could not identify.

Unidentified blue fungi.

As they closed in on the summit, the forest thinned until eventually they were walking among scrub and large boulders

"At around 1,600 metres above sea level, we suddenly saw one great pitcher plant, then a second, then many more," McPherson recounts. "It was immediately apparent that the plant we had found was not a known species."

"The plant is among the largest of all carnivorous plant species and produces spectacular traps as large as other species which catch not only insects; but, also rodents as large as rats," says McPherson.

The team also encountered another pitcher, Nepenthes deaniana, which had not been seen in the wild for 100 years. The only known existing specimens of the species were lost in a herbarium fire in 1945.

As if this wasn’t enough to keep the botanists reeling, on the way down, the team came across a striking new species of sundew, a type of sticky trap plant, which they are in the process of formally describing.

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