Friday 6 December 2019

Country Matters: 'Oddball' rodent-eating plant

David Attenborough
David Attenborough

Joe Kennedy

I HAD come upon a picture of a hirsute rodent peering out of foliage that looked like a red shoe.

Coincidentally, a couple of widely travelled folk had been talking to me of long-haired rats they had encountered, one in Goa, a former Portuguese colony in India, and the other on cargo vessels, in the chill-room areas, no less. Their anecdotes must wait for another time.

But the whiskered rat in the photograph had found itself in an intractable situation within a pitcher plant in a Far East jungle - it can hold two litres of water - which it had penetrated seeking sustenance. Instead, the animal had become the meal as it could not now escape being pinioned under a lid like a red tongue poised over the 'shoe' opening and ready to slam shut. The plant had been discovered on a botany expedition to Mount Victoria in the Philippines a couple of years back. It seems to fancy rats for breakfast.

The plant, like an apparition from Indiana Jones, has since received a name in the Linnaean science of binary nomenclature which categorises plants, animals, birds and such and is called after the 18th century Swedish naturalist who devised the system.

The rodent-eater has honoured no less a luminary than Sir David Attenborough with the name "nepenthes attenboroughii", given to him by an explorer named Stewart McPherson, the name of another BBC icon of so long ago that he was succeeded by our own late great Eamon Andrews!

Sir David was pleased at the honour, adding to his list of awards for the natural sciences which might never have happened if he had remained as BBC2's first Controller of Programmes. While there he promoted snooker on colour television, something impossible to enjoy in monochrome. Fortunately he returned to his first interest, anthropology, and has shaped the way millions of viewers think about nature. He took animals out of zoos.

Sir David has already been catalogued with a prehistoric lizard, a parasitic wasp, a spiny ant-eater and a fossilised fish. He was pleased the large rat-eating plant was named after him. "I like these oddball plants and this is a very dramatic one," he said.

Every year more than 15,000 new species are uncovered by science. Naming tributes are usually paid to the discoverers but many are called after distinguished persons and patrons of research. A lichen was called "alpaca obamae" to honour the US President's support of science.

There are also some more light-hearted examples: a sea snail called "bufonaria borisbeckeri", a ground beetle named "agra katewinslete" and a dinosaur called "masiakasaurus knoplfeiri" after the rock guitarist! Some political figures of the recent past have not escaped lightly. "Agathidium bushi" and "a.cheeneyi" are slime mould beetles. There are more than 600 carnivorous plants, many of them insect-eaters.

In Ireland there are sundews, bladderworths and butterworths, the great butterworth, found usually in bogs, having large violet flowers, was once used as an aide in butter-making - it helped curdle milk. It shows no mercy to insects, its leaves curling around them, surely another candidate awaiting a suitable patron in the times that are in it…

Sunday Independent

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