The giant pitcher plant that tree shrews use as a loo: Nepenthes rajah

February 6th, 2011 | by lucy |

There are around 100 known species of carnivorous pitcher plants (new ones are still being discovered), with the greatest diversity found in Malaysia.  These carnivorous plants grow vessels to trap their insect prey, which they attract with nectar. The victims lose their footing on the slippery walls and drown in the liquid held inside the plant, before being promptly digested.

The biggest pitcher traps are produced by Nepenthes rajah, found only on Mount Kinabalu and Mount Tamboyukon on the island of Borneo.  Its thick stems grow along the ground where the pitchers rest with their lids open, looking like elegant toilets designed by Salvador Dali. Rats, birds and frogs have been found drowned inside these giant traps, leading to dramatic headlines about rat-eating plants, but these are rare events – the plant’s main prey are insects.  However, recent studies have found that Nepenthes rajah has another source of food.

Tree shrews also come to feed on the nectar on the lid, which they reach while standing on the rim, and poo into the pitcher while eating.  So is the plant a shrew loo?  Not really, for the defecating shrew is establishing its territory, rather than fastidiously using a latrine – but for the plant it’s a great source of nitrogen.

Other interesting facts about pitcher plants

  • People have used the tough pitchers as pots for cooking rice
  • The liquid is drunk as a beverage, its taste depending on the prey the plant has caught.
  • The liquid also has medicinal uses, being used to treat coughs and bladder problems.
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