Perfectly Poisonous Pitcher Plants are Awaiting Our Arrival…
It’s almost BORNEO time! You’ve still got a few weeks to book the remaining spaces (just a few) on the next adventure with Taxon Expeditions…
I provided a lot of the overall details of our itinerary in my first blog post here; however, something that I am particularly excited about is our 2-day hike planned to the center of the Mailau Basin. This area is home to nearly unfathomable numbers of plant, animal, invertebrate and microbe species, including some of the most intriguing plants in the world.
Menno Schilthuizen, one of our trip leaders, has lent me one of his books –Loom of Life, in which he describes many aspects of the pitcher plants that we will encounter. These oddly shaped entities are named for their large, vessel-like bodies (called phylotelmata) that on first glance appear to be filled with water. For the weary hiker or insect in search of a drink, this is a delightful prospect in an extremely hot and humid environment. The graceful curves of the enticing, liquid-filled cups prove deadly for hundreds of tiny invertebrates. The viscous, slippery nature of the pitcher-plant fluid makes it impossible for them to crawl out once their bodies are covered in it, and this results in a diverse array of dead and dying creatures in them at any given time. Just how impossible is it for victims to get out once they are in? The highest observed number of attempted crawl-outs by a single tiny invertebrate individual is 48 – which is hopefully not representative of the amount of suffering that the average victim endures! In addition to being slippery, the fluid contains many digestive enzymes and is essentially the means by which the plants break down their prey. The cup-structure itself acts as an external stomach for breakdown and digestion of nutrients.
Sure, at this point the system sounds incredibly interesting and most definitely something to see – but there’s another layer of complexity to consider as well. A number of both vertebrate and invertebrate species have evolved mutualistic relationships with pitcher plants, such that the former obtain nectar and/or shelter from the pitcher, and the latter provide the pitcher with additional help in the digestive department. The pitcher fluid itself isn’t strong enough to break down the biomass of larger victims like spiders or cockroaches, so mutualistic species are extremely helpful in speeding the process along. They do this either through mechanical means (mutualistic ants) or through defecating directly into the pitcher itself (bats and monkeys). In some cases, the pitchers act as little forest toilets – where the vertebrate species can feed on their nectar and take a poop at the same time!
Not all organisms that find themselves in the phylotelmata of the pitcher plant succumb to the acidic, slippery fluid. There are actually several species of invertebrates that have evolved to spend their lifespans fishing from the smorgasbord of treats that their host plants provide. These so-called infaunal species live in their own pitcher-bound ecosystems where food is plentiful and they are well protected from external predators.
Pitcher plants don’t grow in the Northern part of North America where I live, so I simply cannot wait for my chance to see them up close and personal. There are just a few spots left on our next excursion, I’d love to have you join us! For more information on how you can come along to Borneo, visit www.taxonexpeditions.com
I’ll see you soon!
Dr. Carin Bondar is a biologist, writer, presenter and a true science geek. You can currently see her on Discovery Channel’s ‘Outrageous Acts of Science’ and ‘Stephen Hawking’s Brave New World’. She is host of ‘Worlds Oddest Animal Couples’ (Netflix Canada). Her independent web series ‘Wild Sex’, produced by Earth Touch Productions has amassed over 60 million views and she presented on this topic at TED Global 2013 in Edinburgh, Scotland.