An unsuspecting fly lands on a seemingly inert surface…before the plant’s “jaws” close in on it, sealing its fate. If someone talks to you about a carnivorous plant, this is probably the image that comes to mind. But some species do not feed on “fresh meat” – that is, on rotting corpses, but on … animal excrement.
⋙ A strange carnivorous plant that keeps its prey underground has been discovered in Borneo
Carnivorous plants of the genus do not have “jaws”. Nepenthe : like pitcher plants, these tropical plants are characterized by their “bags” shaped like bowls or pitchers. These swollen structures, which are slippery and filled with fluid mixed with digestive juices, serve to trap and then slowly disintegrate the flying or crawling insects they feed on.
However, in ten species (including four hybrids) studied by Australian, German and Malaysian botanists on the island of Borneo, plant traps collected litter from the tupaia, a small arboreal mammal, rather than whole insects.
Feces contain more nitrogen than insects
If this is not an amazing dietary discovery – researchers began to prove it as early as 2009 – this is the advantage in terms of survival, according to the authors of a study published in the journal. Annals of Botany for the first time they detailed it precisely.
⋙ According to a study, these delicate white flowers are actually hiding a carnivorous plant
According to the researchers, these coprophagous plants will find more nitrogen in their diet than their counterparts – an essential nutrient for carrying out photosynthesis. “We found that the amount of nitrogen captured was more than twice as high in species scavenging mammal feces as compared to other Nepenthes.“, Alastair Robinson, a professor at the herbarium of the Royal Botanic Gardens of Victoria, Australia, is quoted in a press release overseeing the work.
A finding by the study authors from the isotopic analysis of nitrogen in the tissues of carnivorous plants. Several “isotopes” of an atom have the same number of protons and electrons but different numbers of neutrons; however, the enrichment of one isotope relative to others provides information about the diet of the organism in question.
Protect plant biodiversity
According to the authors, the scarcity of insects at high altitudes would have driven carnivorous plants to specialize on other food sources over generations. “At tropical altitudes above 2,200 meters, insects are rare, so these plants increase food productivity by accumulating scarcer, more valuable sources of nitrogen, such as tupaya manure.“, explains Professor Robinson.
The authors hope that this new knowledge should contribute to efforts to conserve plant biodiversity. Indeed, there are more endangered species Nepenthe than any other genus of carnivorous plants: in total, of over 160 species, at least 40% of those assessed on the IUCN Red List are classified as ‘critically endangered’, ‘endangered’ or ‘vulnerable’.
⋙ According to one study, a quarter of carnivorous plants are threatened with extinction
As for Tupa, the benefit of this strange connection was already documented before the new study. The small mammal actually consumes a secretion, rich in carbohydrates, produced by the plant at the level of the “lid” that will be closed on the container after the passage of the animal. Meanwhile, the toupaye will have time to defecate and thus bring its “food” to the plant. The real “vegetarian toilet”!
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