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J Exp Biol. 2005 Dec;208(Pt 24):4651-62.

Composite structure of the crystalline epicuticular wax layer of the slippery zone in the pitchers of the carnivorous plant Nepenthes alata and its effect on insect attachment.

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Evolutionary Biomaterials Group, Department Arzt, Max Planck Institute for Metals Research, and Institute of Botany, University of Hohenheim, Stuttgart, Germany.


The slippery zone situated below the peristome inside pitchers of most carnivorous plants from the genus Nepenthes is covered with a thick layer of epicuticular wax. This slippery zone is reported to play a crucial role in animal trapping and prey retention. In N. alata, the wax coverage consists of two clearly distinguished layers. These layers differ in their structure, chemical composition and mechanical properties, and they reduce the insect attachment in different ways. The lower layer resembles foam, composed of interconnected membraneous platelets protruding from the surface at acute angles. The upper layer consists of densely placed separate irregular platelets, located perpendicular to the subjacent layer. Crystals of the upper layer bear small stalks, directed downwards and providing connections to the lower layer. These morphological distinctions correlate with differences in the chemical composition of waxes. The compound classes of alkanes, aldehydes, primary alcohols, free fatty acids, esters and triterpenoids occurred in extracts from both wax layers, but in different proportions. Chain length distributions in aliphatics were different in extracts from the lower and the upper wax layers. Waxes of the upper and lower layers exhibited different mechanical properties: wax of the lower layer is harder and stiffer than that of the upper layer. Moreover, crystals of the upper layer are brittle and may be easily exfoliated or broken to tiny pieces. Laboratory experiments using tethered insects showed that both wax layers reduce the attachment force of insects. It is assumed that a decrease in insect attachment on the two distinct wax layers is provided by the two different mechanisms: (1) crystals of the upper wax layer contaminate insects' adhesive pads; (2) the lower wax layer leads to a reduction of the real contact area of insects' feet with the plant surface.

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