The giant plants that eat meat

Author: 
Cat Adams
A study by Prof. Jon Moran is highlighted in the Apr. 21 edition of BBC Earth

The habits of meat-eating plants run from simply consuming insects to harnessing bacteria to dissolve the flesh of their prey.

But the first known example of a beneficial relationship between meat-eating plants and animals was identified in a study by School of Environment and Sustainability Prof. Jonathan Moran.

In an article posted to BBC Earth, Dr. Moran’s study is credited with launching an upswing in scientific interest in carnivorous pitcher plants.

Here is an excerpt:

“To see if the pitcher plants had developed a mutually beneficial relationship with the [montane tree] shrew, in 2009 a team of scientists led by Dr. Jonathan Moran of Royal Roads University in Canada, travelled to the montane cloud forest of Malaysia where [Nepenthes lowii]grows.

An individual plant of N. lowii has two types of pitchers: terrestrial pitchers along the ground, and aerial pitchers held in the air.

By remotely videotaping these plants during the day, the team confirmed that only the terrestrial pitchers catch insects. Videos showed the aerial pitchers are visited by the tree shrew, which eats nectar the plant produces on its rim.

While the tree shrew feeds, it often defecates into the pitcher. The faeces is very nitrogen-rich, and would be extremely useful to the plant.

To determine if the plants were able to incorporate nitrogen from the tree shrew droppings, the scientists conducted a stable-isotope analysis on the pitcher’s leaves, a technique that tracks the origin of an element. The team concluded that N. lowii plants with aerial pitchers derive 57-100% of their nitrogen from this shrew poo.

This study revealed the first known mutualism between a carnivorous plant and a mammal. The discovery sparked a sudden scientific interest in the giant plants that eat meat.

For example, the pitcher species Nepenthes rajah of Borneo is large enough to drown a rat.

That sparked speculation that some plants actually killed and ate the flesh of mammals.”

Read the entire article.