TFSnewsRToom/TimesOnline.co.uk Posted Aug 18, 2009 11:06 AM
Giant rat-eating nepenthes plant named after David AttenboroughChris Smyth
Nepenthes attenboroughii is so big that small rodents could be trapped inside and dissolved by flesh-eating enzymes
He may be best known for his mellifluous tones and gentle manner, but for one group of botanists Sir David Attenborough clearly conjures up different associations. Explorers who discovered a new species of giant rodent-eating carnivorous plant have named it after the TV naturalist.
Nepenthes attenboroughii, a previously unknown variety of pitcher plant discovered on a remote mountain in the Philippines, is so big that small rodents could be trapped inside and slowly dissolved by flesh-eating enzymes.
It is thought that only a few hundred of the plants exist, growing only on one mountain on the island of Palawan. The species was discovered by a team of scientists who had heard reports from missionaries who got lost in the dense jungle.
Stewart McPherson, Alastair Robinson and Volker Heinrich decided to name the plant after Sir David as an expression of gratitude for his decades of work celebrating the natural world.
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He has inspired a generation into protecting the world and developing greater understanding diversity of the planet, Mr McPherson said.
We really wanted to name this particular plant after him as an expression of gratitude. This is a very special one because its so big, theres really been nothing found like it for a long time.
Sir David told The Times that it was a great honour to have the species named after him. He said that the nepenthes family were very dramatic plants. Ive always thought they are remarkable things, very elegant and charming.
Mr McPherson said it was likely that the new species occasionally digested rats and mice. It is without a shadow of a doubt big enough, he said. I found a species in Borneo with pitchers half the size with dead mice in it.
Nepenthes rajah, the only species of pitcher plant bigger than N. attenboroughii, has been known to digest rodents since the British naturalist Spencer St John was astonished to discover a drowned rat in a specimen in Borneo in 1862.
Sir David featured that species in his early TV series Zoo Quest and also The Private Life of Plants in 1995. Ive seen them in the wild a bit, mostly in Borneo. Theyre lovely things, he said.
The naturalist already has several species named after him, including a spiny anteater in New Guinea, a rare tree in Ecuador and a marine reptile, the Attenborosaurus, that lived during the Jurassic period.
But he downplayed the scientific significance of such names. You have to have names for things and and you run out after a bit, he said. Its just a compliment, but its very nice to receive compliments."
Mr McPherson has spent the past three years cataloguing the 120 known nepenthes species. N. attenboroughii was discovered in 2007 but formally described only this year.
Mr McPherson mounted an expedition after hearing about missionaries who tried to climb the mountain on Palawan in 2000 to install a radio relay station. They got lost in the uncharted jungle and had to be flown out after 13 days without food.
They reported seeing giant pitcher plants on the mountain and Mr McPherson said he was trying to follow up on that lead.
He believes that the expedition discovered about 30 new species, only a few of which have been published.