Pitcher perfect - but carnivorous plants are at risk

Botanists fear that newly discovered species of meat-eating flowers are losing their habitat and may already be extinct

Botanists are in a race against time to save some of the world's most spectacular carnivorous plants from extinction. Over the past year a dozen previously unknown species of pitcher plants, at least one of them big enough to swallow and eat rats, have been identified by researchers. They all originated in the Philippines, but because of forest clearance several are already feared to be extinct or on the verge of being wiped out.

Scientists are now desperately hoping live specimens can be found and propagated before the last of their habitat is cut down to grow pineapples and palm oil, or is cleared by mining companies.

The recent discoveries, 12 previously unknown pitcher plants – nepenthes – in the past year, and a further 12 since 2001, have established the Philippines as one of the most important, if not the most important place in the world for pitcher plants. For carnivorous-plant enthusiasts it is a double tragedy, because not only have individual species been lost, but so too has the opportunity to see and study "the jewel in the crown" of pitcher plant habitats. Until last year Borneo and Sumatra were regarded as offering the greatest in pitcher plant diversity worldwide, but the new finds establish the Philippines as at least their equal.

The 12 new species identified last year were discovered by Dr Martin Cheek, of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, with Dr Matthew Jebb, of the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland. The plants were identified from dead specimens collected years ago and never properly studied before being stored in herbariums in places such as Hawaii, California and Texas.

"The situation in the Philippines is quite serious already. We've gone from 1925 when it was believed two-thirds of the country was under the original vegetation, to the year 2000 where there's an assessment that only 3 per cent has survived," said Dr Cheek.

"Since then, things haven't been getting any better. It seems so sad that a large number of species have remained unknown and have been taken right to the edge of extinction, if not extinct already. It's pretty depressing."

The pitchers vary in size, but the biggest can be 30cm long or more, putting them among the largest in the world. Dr Cheek said: "The pitchers would be filled with a whole range of enzymes which would act on whatever animal has been caught and break them up into a soup. Everything that ends up in the pitcher generally doesn't get out. We know that some species have been known to trap rats and mice, but the usual fare would be things like ants and cockroaches."

Among the discoveries is a plant that the researchers are so convinced has already been wiped out that they have named it Nepenthes extincta. It used to live in an area that has since been heavily damaged by nickel mining.

One species that is still believed to exist in the wild is Nepenthes ultra which was found in scrubland close to a coastal resort. It is likely to have been photographed by tourists unaware that the plant was unknown to science.

The researchers have written several papers on the new discoveries in journals, including Phytotaxa and the European Journal of Taxonomy.

In one they warned: "Since habitat destruction continues in the Philippines, it is a race against time to discover, publish, assess and draw attention to the conservation needs of species before they become extinct, if they have not already been lost."

Smooth operator

The carnivorous nepenthes plant, which traps its prey in smooth-sided "pitchers", is inspiring a new generation of protective coatings.

Harvard University researchers have mimicked the plant's near-frictionless skin structure to produce self-healing coatings that repel liquids and pollutants. They say the coating can be cheaply applied to almost any object, large or small. It can resist graffiti, protect medical implants, aid blood flow, clean electrical components, prevent ice build-up on aircraft wings, protect ship hulls, and aid the passage of oil and other products by pipeline.

The scientists' work took them to this year's finals of the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) awards in the UK, which recognise excellence and innovation in the chemical industry. IChemE's chief executive, Dr David Brown, said: "[The] new coating self-heals almost instantly, even if scraped with a knife or blade. It is a very clever solution."

Dona Paranayil

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent