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Nepenthes rafflesiana elongata (upper pitcher)

Nepenthes rafflesiana elongata (upper pitcher)

Yesterday’s post described the carnivorous nepenthes plants which entice organisms into their slippery liquid-filled depths where the tiny creatures are killed and digested.  The plants however are after different nutrients than carnivorous animals are.  Instead of hungering for proteins, carbohydrates, minerals, and complex amino acids (and all that other stuff nutritionists and zookeepers are always going on about) plants simply want phosphorus and nitrogen.

The small wooly bat (Kerivoula intermedia)

The small wooly bat (Kerivoula intermedia)

The small wooly bat (Kerivoula intermedia) is a tiny vesper bat which lives in Malaysia (the portion on Borneo). The small wooly bat weighs between 2.5 to 4 g (0.08 to 0.14 ounces) and, at most, measures 40 mm (1.6 in) from nose to tail.  It is one of the smallest mammals alive—it is even smaller than the miniscule lesser bamboo bat (which lives inside of single segment chambers in bamboo stalks).  The small wooly bat has found an equally fine home: the tiny creatures live inside a Bornean subspecies of nepenthes– Nepenthes rafflesiana elongata.  The little bats fit perfectly inside the long tapered chambers of Nepenthes rafflesiana elongata—the taper even prevents the tiny aerial hunters from falling in.  In exchange for providing a perfect home for the tiny bats, the plants also get something.  Bat guano is a famous source of nitrogen and phosphorus—so much so that humans have been known to mine old bat caves to use the deep layers of excrement for an agricultural fertilizer.

carnivorous-plant-and-bat

Nepenthes rafflesiana elongate does not need to be an effective hunter.  The bats which live inside its tube shaped pitchers provide it with the nutrients it needs on a continuing basis: the two organisms provide a beautiful example of a symbiotic relationship.

woolly bat with pitcher plant

Nepenthes hamata

Nepenthes hamata

The Nepenthes are a genus of pitcher plants which live in tropical forests of the old world.  The carnivorous plants occur in a vast range which stretches from South China to Australia, and from the Philippines, to Madagascar, however the greatest diversity of nepenthes plants is found in Borneo and Sumatra.  Although some of these plants are found in environments where it is always hot or always cold, the majority of Nepenthe species live on tropical mountain slopes where it is hot during the day and cool at night.  They also tend to grow in nutrient-poor soils where they face stiff competition from ultra-competitive tropical trees, vines, and flowers.

Nepenthes ventricosa

Nepenthes ventricosa

In order to produce the nutrients they need (mostly nitrogen and phosphorus) nepenthes have evolved an ingenious solution: they capture small animals inside elegant cup-like traps and digest them as fertilizer. To attract prey, nepenthes produce sugary nectars, sweet perfumes, and vibrant colors. Pitcher plants usually trap insects and other small arthropods, however the very largest of these plants can catch lizards, frogs, rodents, and even birds.

A large nepenthe slowly digests an unhappy rat

A large nepenthe slowly digests an unhappy rat (from Redfern Natural History)

The traps of pitcher plants are highly modified leaves (which sometimes have lid-like operculums to keep rain out).  At the bottom of each trap is a pool of fluid containing compounds which prevent the prey from escaping.  In some cases biopolymers make the trap extremely sticky/syrupy, however in other cases the liquid at the bottom of pitcher plants seems watery (although it still has an effect on insects and myriapoda).  The lip of the nepenthe plant is extremely slippery and the waxy throat prevents the plant’s victims from clambering out.

Nepenthes attenboroughii

Nepenthes attenboroughii

The name of the nepenthe might be the most sinister thing about this sinister plant.  In the Odyssey (and other classical Greek sources), nepenthe was a magical fluid which erased cares and worries completely from the mind.  The nepenthe does remove all worries from small guests who come to call on it—albeit by killing them and digesting their bodies.

Nepenthes izumiae

Nepenthes izumiae

Unfortunately many nepenthes are threatened by habitat loss (particularly as the great rainforests around the Indian Ocean are destroyed by loggers and farmers). Fortunately human beings are fond of nepenthes (partly because of our shared nature and partly because of the plants’ racy good looks) and fanciers produce great moist greenhouses of beautiful malicious hybrids.

A fancy hybrid nepenthe

A fancy hybrid nepenthe

Please Don't Go (Maria Tomasula, 2010, oil on panel)

Please Don’t Go (Maria Tomasula, 2010, oil on panel)

Maria Tomasula is a contemporary artist who paints strange collections of beautiful items coalescing into miniature glowing geometric systems (usually against an empty black outer space backdrop).  Dew, flowers, and fruit are the most frequent items in these compositions, but sculptures, amphibians, skulls, mollusks, weapons, and disembodied organs (among other things) also find their way into these little microcosms.

Ground of Being (Maria Tomasula, 2010, oil on panel)

Ground of Being (Maria Tomasula, 2010, oil on panel)

Tomasula paints the shining or dewy objects which make up her still life works with finicky photorealism, yet the abstract structure of the works takes these images towards mathematical abstraction. Her delightful little paintings give us the aesthetics of the natural world as viewed through a dark melting kaleidoscope.

Intercession (Maria Tomasula, 2007, oil on panel)

Intercession (Maria Tomasula, 2007, oil on panel)

Tomasula has a particular flair for teasing humankind’s magpie-like fascination with shininess and bright colors.  From across the gallery, her works beguile the viewer closer and closer.  Only when one is next to them does one notice the carnivorous pitcher plants and bird skulls among the velvet, petals, and jewels.   However the dark imagery does not outshine the sensuous appeal of these fastidious spirals, loops, and curtains.  Tomasula invites us to reach into the dark fractal pattern of beauty to grab the waxy flowers, the moist fruits, the polished gems…if we dare.

Second Nature (Maria Tomasula, 2011, oil on panel)oil on panel

Second Nature (Maria Tomasula, 2011, oil on panel)
oil on panel

 

 

Andrewsarchus Skull at the American Museum of Natural History

In the summer of 1923, Kan Chuen Pao unearthed an enormous skull from the baking Gobi desert of Mongolia.  Pao was a member of a paleontology expedition led by Roy Chapman Andrews, a world famous explorer, adventurer, and naturalist who, during the course of his career, rose from being a janitor at the American Museum of Natural History to being its director.  The skull they found was an enigma—the creature was a mammal with immensely powerful jaws but blunt peg-like teeth. No substantial bones were found other than the skull sans jaw (nor have any further specimens ever been discovered). The skull was discovered in sediments deposited during the late Eocene, the sweltering summer epoch when most extant mammalian orders evolved, so it is probably 36 to 40 odd million years old.  Andrews was immediately of the opinion that it was a huge carnivore, but what sort of creature was it really?

A toothy hairy model of Andrewsarchus

The creature was named Andrewsarchus mongoliensis in honor of Adrews and his expedition.  Andrewsarchus may have been the largest mammalian carnivore ever (although short faced bears might have been larger).  The one skull, currently in New York, measures 83 cm (33 inches) long and 56 cm (22 inches)wide–which suggests the animal may have been 3.4 meters (11 feet) long and nearly 2 meters (6 feet) tall at the shoulders.  Such a creature could weigh more than 1000 kg (2200 lb).

A drawing of Andrewsarchus with a large ninja to explain scale (Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur)

But Adrewsarchus may not have been a carnivore:  ever since the beginning of the jazz age, Paleontologists have argued about the monster’s diet.  Andrewsarchus lived along the coast of the eastern Tethys Ocean, a sea which was dried out and destroyed when the Indian subcontinent barreled into Asia during the late Eocene/Early Oligocene.

A Delightful Andrewsarchus model/toy produced by Bullyland

Some scientists believe the creature was a hunter which captured the giant land animals of the time. Other scientists believe the animal was a scavenger which lived on the rotting carcasses of primitive whales and beached sea turtles.  Another group feels that the creature fed on huge beds of shellfish, and a final school holds that the animal was even larger than believed and was at least part-herbivore!

An unpainted model of an athletic hunting Andrewsarchus (as envisioned by Paleocraft)

The taxonomy of Andrewsarchus is equally confusing.  The great skull was initially classified as a giant creodont (an extinct order of alpha-predators which share an ancestor with today’s carnivore).  The first scientific paper about the creature by great paleontologist and…um, eugenicist, Henry Fairfield Osborn, states, “An outline sketch of the skull was sent in a letter to the Museum, from which Dr. W. D. Matthew immediately observed its real affinity to the primitive Creodonta of the family Mesonychidae.”

Later scientists have been less certain about lots of things than Osborn was and Andrewsarchus’ place in the mammalian family is now unclear.  A consensus is emerging that the great creature shared common ancestors with the artiodactyls (like hippos, deer, and pigs).  Perhaps its heritage provides insights into the link between the artiodactyls and their close (yet oh so distant) cousins the whales.

A digital Andrewsarchus pensively gnawing a bone beside the Eastern Tethys (from BBC’s “Walking with Beasts”)

Whatever the case is, these giant hoofed creatures with their immense powerful maws must have been amazing and terrifying to behold.  Their fate seems to have been sealed as the Tethys closed and the Gobi basin dried out, but, whenever I think of the harrowing deserts of Mongolia and China, I imagine their fearsome toothy spirits towering over the other strange ghosts of that haunted place.

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