OLOMOUC, Czech Republic — A new type of carnivorous plant that catches its prey underground has been discovered by scientists. Researchers found the unique type of pitcher plant on the island of Borneo in Indonesia.
“We found a pitcher plant which differs markedly from all the other known species,” says lead study author Martin Dančák of Palacký University in a media release.
“In fact, this species places its up-to-11-cm-long pitchers underground, where they are formed in cavities or directly in the soil and trap animals living underground, usually ants, mites and beetles.”
The plant is called Nepenthes pudica, which means “bashful” and reflects the fact that its lower pitchers remain hidden from sight. The plant forms specialized underground shoots with entirely white leaves which do not contain chlorophyll, a pigment that makes most plants green.
The leaves supporting the pitchers are a fraction of their normal size, but the pitchers retain their size and are often red in color. Researchers found organisms living inside the pitchers including mosquito grub, nematode worms, as well as a new species of worm.
The newfound species may have been forced to go underground because it grows on fairly dry ridgetops at an elevation of 3,600 to 4,200 feet. More humid conditions and more potential prey during dry periods mean staying underground may give them a more stable environment to live in, according to the researchers.
The new species was discovered when the research team visited a previously unexplored mountain. They found plants which were definitely Nepenthes but seemingly produced no pitchers. Study authors also found one which had buried its pitchers in the soil but first thought it was an accident.
As the team carried on walking up the mountain, they found more of the plants “without” pitchers until the species was found under a tree base.
“At first, we thought it was an accidentally buried pitcher and that local environmental conditions had caused the lack of other pitchers,” says researcher Dr. Ľuboš Majeský.
“Still, as we continued to find other pitcherless plants along the ascent to the summit, we wondered if a species of pitcher plant might have evolved towards loss of carnivory, as seen in some other carnivorous plants. But then, when taking photos, I tore a moss cushion from a tree base revealing a bunch of richly maroon-colored pitchers growing from a short shoot with reduced leaves entirely lacking chlorophyll.”
Researchers dug underground in the other places where they had found the plants “without” pitchers and found the plants were all the same as the ones the researchers found first growing with underground shoots with pitchers.
The plants are widespread in Borneo. Three other groups of carnivorous plants are known to trap underground prey, but they do not have pitchers and can only trap tiny organisms.
“This discovery is important for nature conservation in Indonesian Borneo, as it emphasizes its significance as a world biodiversity hotspot,” adds researcher Wewin Tjiasmanto from Indonesian conservation group Yayasan Konservasi Biota Lahan Basah.
“We hope that the discovery of this unique carnivorous plant might help protect Bornean rainforests, especially prevent or at least slow the conversion of pristine forests into oil palm plantations.”
The findings are published in the journal PhytoKeys.
South West News Service writer Gwyn Wright contributed to this report.