Common Name: The Asian Pitcher Plant
A.K.A.: Genus Nepenthes
- Over 130 species in the genus
- The vast majority of species have extremely narrow ranges of only a single island or small island group, and are considered threatened
- Most recently discovered (2007) was Nepenthes attenboroughii, named for Sir David Attenborough, who is fond of pitcher plants
Found: Mountainous regions of Southeast Asia, Oceania, and Madagascar
It Does What?!
Plants have evolved a variety of different ways to deal with growing in nutrient-poor soils. Some become parasitic, some develop close symbiotic relationships with bacteria or fungi, and some of them… well, some of them just start eating animals.
One group of plants that went this route are the Asian pitcher plants (not to be confused with the not-closely-related New World pitcher plants, which tend to have tall, flute-like pitchers). These smallish, climbing plants use highly modified leaves to form what are essentially external stomachs, complete with the plant’s own digestive fluid. These pitchers, which vary in size from one species to the next, have extremely slick, waxy inner walls. When visitors come to eat the nectar produced on the lid (or “operculum”) of the trap, they lose their footing and fall into the liquid below.
That liquid is actually a pretty complex mixture; it’s divided into two phases, like oil and water. The upper portion is mostly rainwater, but has been laced with a compound that makes it more viscous, preventing winged insects from just flying away, as they could from pure water. The trap’s lid actually functions to prevent too much rainwater from getting inside and diluting the fluid too much. The lower portion of the liquid is a digestive acid capable of breaking down flesh into useable molecules (particularly nitrogen and phosphorous), much like our own stomach acid. Analogous to our intestines, the lower inside surface of the pitcher is covered with special glands that absorb suspended nutrients.
Most of what gets caught in pitcher plants is about what you’d expect- winged insects, spiders, beetles, small scorpions. But occasionally, some larger animals find their way in. Things that should have known better, like frogs, lizards, and even birds. Arguably, these plants are doing evolution a favour by taking out any bird dumb enough to fly into its own watery grave. And yes, to answer your next question- they can eat rats, but only a single species has been documented to do this. Nepenthes rajah, the largest of all pitcher plants, has pitchers which grow to a height of nearly half a metre (1.6’) and hold up to three and a half litres (1gal.) of fluid, most of which is digestive juice.
Interestingly, pitcher plants have formed symbiotic relationships with several of the same types of creatures that it otherwise preys on. Nepenthes lowii, for example, provides nectar to a tree shrew. Instead of falling in and being digested, the shrew treats the pitcher as its personal toilet, thereby providing the plant with most of the nutrition it requires.
Other species form alliances with groups of carpenter ants. In exchange for a steady supply of nectar and a place to live- in this case a hollow tendril- the ants basically act as the plant’s evil henchmen (apparently a specialty of ants). When prey that is too large to be easily digested falls into the trap, the ants remove it, rip it to shreds, and then throw the bits back in again.
How’s that for a brilliant piece of evolution? Not only did these plants grow an external stomach… they get ants to chew their food for them.
[Fun Fact: Some pitcher plants primarily survive by digesting leaves that fall from trees into their traps – the ‘vegetarians’ of the carnivorous plant world.]
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- Clarke et al. (2009) Biology Letters 5: 632-635
- Krol et al. (2012) Annals of Botany 109: 47-64
- Robinson et al. (2009) Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 159: 195-202
- Wells et al. (2011) Journal of Tropical Ecology 27(4): 347-353