Beware of the Mikinalo!

Species Spotlight

By Dr. Sam ‘Ohu Gon III

Hungry and tired, the traveler wandered aimlessly across the cold, remote bog, the low terrain offering only the monotony of grey hummocks of dense vegetation. Wanting sustenance, the smell of food ahead perked attention, and in a clearing the glistening promise of pure water contrasted with the stagnant mud of the infrequent puddles. So intent on food and a drink, the traveler did not notice the mummified remains nearby, but approaching an enticing orb of glistening nectar, reached for the promise of sustenance…

Immediately something was wrong! His lips found not sweet nectar, but tarry clear glue, and the sticky fluid burned the inside of his mouth! Desperate to get away, he pushed at the sticky orb, and his limbs were soon mired in the same messy trap. His struggles only made it worse, and then red-tipped tentacles descended, bearing more of the glistening droplets to smother and consume him alive!

A Carnivorous Plant

Poor fly! He had fallen victim to our only native carnivorous plant, which grows in the bogs of Kaua‘i. The sundew Drosera anglica, is also known from more temperate climes, and indeed the Kaua‘i populations are the most southern documented. Its leaves are medusa-like, long green extensions are each tipped with a red gland that secretes a droplet of sweet-smelling, but gluey clear liquid; a mix of enticement, entrapment, and digestion. Gnats and other small insects are attracted to the scent, get stuck to the droplets, and then the tentacles, in response to their struggles to escape, converge and ensure a meal for the plant. The glands are also designed to extract and absorb the proteins from the insect, and after a few days, only an empty shell remains.

Hawaiians noticed the native sundew, and deduced its nature, calling it mikinalo (miki to suck; nalo fly). Growing in the low-nutrient peat of the bogs, the mikinalo extracts needed nitrogen from its prey. The seeds of mikinalo are small, and probably arrived from bogs of Alaska long ago in the mud on the feet of migratory birds, such as the kōlea (the golden plover), whose first stop is Kaua‘i. The mikinalo grows in both the Alaka‘i Plateau and Kanaele Bog, where the Conservancy’s active management protects the important watershed that also serves as the only home for many biological treasures such as our native sundew.

Dr. Sam ‘Ohu Gon III is senior scientist and cultural advisor for The Nature Conservancy of Hawai‘i.