The Pitcher plant, also known as pitfall trap, may be the most puzzling leaf that has ever been discovered. It has an ability to catch food that is undeniably fascinating. The plant looks like a goblet or a pitcher and comes in various different shapes and sizes, capable of eating up to 6,000 insects per hour.
It does not matter if the insects are flying, foraging, or crawling, they are attracted to the plant that folds its leaves inward to make it appear as a pitcher. Then, the plant produces nectar and simply waits for its victim to come to it, using visual cues such as anthocyanin pigments and nectar bribes. The pitcher sides are slippery so the insects fall into the nectar when they try to take a sip. It then attempts to climb over other insects to try and get out until it no longer has the energy to try anymore. Unable to climb out, they are dissolved by amino acids, phosphates, peptides, urea, and ammonium.
The liquid in the plant is a different type of nectar as it contains chemicals similar to stomach acid. These chemicals slowly suck the skin of its prey until it is completely dissolved and the insect becomes the nectar it once wanted to drink. Larger pitcher plants can trap small frogs, birds, and even snakes.
While pitcher plants have not always been carnivorous, the plant had to evolve because it ‘learned’ that by eating insects, it could obtain the proteins, nitrogen, and other minerals that it was not able to obtain from the soil. According to scientists, these plants grow significantly faster when eating insects as opposed to others that only develop when exposed to sunlight and water.
Pitcher plants can live in marshes and peat bogs. Those plants live mostly in the forests of Latin America. Carnivorous plants grow in places where the soil is poor in minerals and/or is too acidic for other plants to grow. Pitcher plants can eat 6,000 insects per hour.
Trumpet pitcher plants have lids on their cup-like leaves, referred to as an operculum. It shields the pitcher from choking on too much rain water while the Darlingtonia californica looks like a snake that is about to strike at any given moment.
Scientists in Brunei have explained their discovery as to why the Nepenthes Rajah is one of the biggest and deadliest pitcher plants in the world. It has a mouth large enough to swallow an entire shrew, but when researchers examined the plant, they could not even find one dead insect. Eventually, the answer showed itself as scientists were examining the contents inside the N. Rajah; they found fresh fecal that had come from a tree shrew nearby. Indeed, the shrew had been using the pitcher plant as a toilet. It was learned that the tree shrew was not the only animal to share this type of relationship with the Pitcher plants. Bats also use it as a ‘restroom.’ Bats can even use the plant as a bed. The N. Rafah will make a girdle on its side to make the bat’s bed.
Pitcher plants can gain nutrients from animal excrements, which can be very rich in Nitrogen. Nitrogen is extremely important for plant growth and development.
Pitcher plants that are able to eat 6,000 insects per hour are able to shut off their slipperiness to lure more prey into being devoured. The plant’s main surface is slippery when it is wet so that insects will fall into the nectar. These plants can shut off for eight hours on dry days and will not capture any prey, according to scientists. Also, if the trapping surface is always wet, the plant will not be able to capture large batches of insects over time.
By Jeanette Smith
Edited by Maurice Cassidy
digg: The Plant That Can Eat 6,000 Insects Per Hour
Learn About Nature: All About the Pitcher Plant
Science Daily: Pitcher Plants ‘Switch off’ Traps to Capture More Plants
Photo courtesy of:
NH53’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Martin Sercombe’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Ben Newcomer’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License