A Poop-Eating Pitcher Plant

The aerial pitchers of Nepenthes hemsleyana (http://bit.ly/2hC94fO) are quite unique in that they are not intended to catch insects. Instead, they have evolved as specialized roosts for Hardwicke's woolly bats (Kerivoula hardwickii). This incredible mutualism is quite unique among these tropical carnivores. The bats get a safe place to roost and in return, they deposit nitrogen-rich feces. 

This mutualism is quite remarkable in that the upper pitchers of N. hemsleyana have pretty much forgone insect capture altogether. Despite the obvious benefits of this evolutionary relationship, no one had bothered to quantify the benefits gained by turning insect catching pitchers into bat roosts. That is, until now. 

A team of researchers based out of University of Greifswald in Germany utilized some cunning methods to demonstrate exactly how much N. hemsleyana relies on bat droppings. What they found what quite remarkable. Plants offered only insects not only had fewer leaves, they also exhibited slower growth, reduced photosynthetic capacity, and reduced survival. It would seem that this mutualism has evolved to the point of being obligate. 

It is estimated that around 95% of the nitrogen needs of this plant are met by bat feces alone. As it turns out, nitrogen bound up in insect tissues were mostly unavailable to the plant. This is not the case for nitrogen in bat poop. Nitrogen deposited by bats comes mostly in the form of urea, which degrades into ammonium and is readily absorbed by the pitchers. 

Essentially Nepenthes hemsleyana now relies on bats to capture prey for them. This "ecological outsourcing," as it has been termed, frees the plant from the rigors of having to capture and digest insects on its own, thus saving valuable energy reserves that can be allocated to structures such as leaves, stems, and flowers. Why this species has evolved this strategy is anyone's guess. Perhaps it has to do with the deep shaded forest understory in which it grows. 

Photo Credit: Merlin Tuttle (www.merlintuttle.smugmug.com)

Further Reading: [1]