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THE SKELETON COLLECTOR

By Tanya Richards Daigle

Imagine you are a small monkey hopping about in the hot sun. You see a huge beautiful red flower shaped like a pitcher. It is bigger than you are! You climb onto the rim of the flower and look in. It is full of fresh water! You are so thirsty! Eagerly, you reach in to get a drink and…. You begin to slide down into the water!

The sides of the plant are so slippery, you can’t get out! You are flailing in the liquid of the giant pitcher plant, and you now realize it was never water at all. You won’t know it, but underneath your feet, at the bottom of the liquid, is a whole collection of skeletons; all that is left of creatures that have fallen into the liquid because the liquid is actually the digestive juices of the plant. (Just the way you have digestive juices in your stomach to dissolve and absorb the food you eat.) In a matter of hours all that will be left of you is your skeleton, collected amongst the others at the bottom of the plant.

Does this sound like a science fiction movie? Well, not if you were a monkey, lemur, mouse or scorpion, living in Borneo, and small enough to be eaten by the Nepenthes Rajah, or King Monkey Cup, the world’s largest meat eating plant.

Most plants make food from air and sun if they have enough water and minerals in the soil. Carnivorous plants also make food from air and sun but they often grow in places where the soil lacks minerals, and the extra minerals that these plants get from eating animals help to keep them alive.

There are about six hundred known species of meat-eating plants in existence, and they have different methods of trapping and eating animals. Some, like the Venus flytrap, have leaves that close quickly, trapping the animal inside. Others, like the Butterwort, are sticky, and animals can’t get off once they have landed. Pitcher Plants contain liquid in an attractive flower shaped like a pitcher. Most Pitcher Plants, such as the Cobra Lily, trap only insects. But in Borneo, a tropical island in the South China Sea, The Nepenthes Rajah, or King Monkey Cup, averages 14 inches in length and 6 inches in diameter; it can kill and digest mice, rats, birds, small monkeys and lemurs.

The Nepenthes Rajah is a vine that can climb to the tops of trees or trail along the ground. The climbing stem has long glossy leaves and at the tip of each leaf is a tendril that twines around other plants. A red flower, shaped like a pitcher, grows at the end of this tendril on many leaves. The pitcher has a hard rim and a half open mouth curved over on one side to form a lid. This lid prevents rain from falling into the flower because although it looks like it is full of water it isn’t; the liquid is all made by the plant itself. The inside wall, of the flower, is covered in wax plates that overlap one another like shingles on a rooftop or scales on a fish. These plates slip over one another easily, so when an animal tries to reach the liquid and puts a foot down on the inside wall, the wax plates stick to its feet, like skis, and it slides helplessly into the flower. Once in the liquid, the animal is quickly digested and absorbed and its skeleton falls to the bottom.

The King Monkey Cup is a beautiful looking plant, but it certainly has some skeletons in the closet!


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