Gooey Pitcher Fluids

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There seems to be no end to the diversity of colors, shapes, and sizes exhibited by Nepenthes and their pitchers. These wonderful carnivorous plants grow these pitchers as a means of supplementing their nutritional needs as the habitats in which Nepenthes are found are lacking in vital nutrients like nitrogen. There are as many variations on the pitcher theme as there are Nepenthes but all function as traps in one form or another. How they trap insects is another topic entirely and some species have evolved incredible means of making sure prey does not escape. Some of my favorites belong to those species that employ sticky mucilage.

Arguably one of the most iconic of this type is Nepenthes inermis. This species is endemic to a small region of Sumatra and, to date, has only been found growing on a handful of mountain peaks in the western part of the country. The specific epithet ‘inermis’ is Latin for ‘unarmed’ as was given in reference to the bizarre upper pitchers of this plant. They look more like toilet bowls than anything carnivorous and indeed, they lack many of the features characteristic of other Nepenthes pitchers such as a peristome and a slippery, waxy coating on the inside of the pitcher walls.

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These may seem like minor details but consider the role these features play in other Nepenthes. A peristome is essentially a brightly colored, slippery lip that lines the outer rim of the pitcher mouth. Not only does this serve in attracting insect prey, it also aids in their capture. As mentioned, the peristome can be extremely slippery (especially when wet) so that any insect stumbling around on the rim is much more likely to fall in. Once inside, a waxy coating on the inside of some pitchers aids in keeping insects down. They simply cannot get purchase on the waxy walls and therefore cannot climb back out. So, for N. inermis to lack both features is a bit strange.

Another interesting feature of N. inermis pitchers is the highly reduced pitcher lid. It hasn’t disappeared completely but compared with other Nepenthes, this pitcher lid barely registers as one. For most Nepenthes, pitcher lids serve multiple functions. For starters, they keep the rain out. Nepenthes are msot at home in humid, tropical climates where rain is a daily force to be reckoned with. For many Nepenthes, rain not only dilutes the valuable digestive soup brewing within each pitcher, it can also cause them to overflow and dump their nutritious contents. Pitcher lids can also help in attracting prey. Like the peristome, they are often brightly colored but many also secrete nectar, which insects find irresistible. Lured in by the promise of food, some insects inevitably fall down into the pitcher below.

Looking into the pitcher of  Nepenthes inermis .

Looking into the pitcher of Nepenthes inermis.

Considering the importance of such structures, it becomes a little bit confusing why some Nepenthes have evolved away from this anatomy. The question then remains, why would a species like N. inermis no longer produce pitchers with these features? Amazingly, the answer actually lies within the pitcher fluid itself.

Tip over the upper pitchers of N. inermis and you will soon discover that they are filled with an extremely viscous mucilage. It is so viscous that some have reported that when the pitchers are held upside down, the mucilage within can form an unbroken stream of considerable length. Its the viscosity of this fluid that is the real reason that N. inermis is able to capture prey so easily. Insects lured to the traps can catch a drink of the nectar on the tiny lid. In doing so, some inevitably fall down into the pitcher itself.

The upper pitcher of the closely related  Nepenthes dubia .

The upper pitcher of the closely related Nepenthes dubia.

Instead of slippery walls or downward pointing hairs keeping the insects in, the viscous pitcher fluid quickly engulfs the struggling prey. Some have even suggested that the nectar secreted by the tiny lid has narcotic effects on visiting insects, however, I have not seen any data demonstrating this. Once caught in the fluid, insects easily slide their way down into the depths of the pitcher where they can be digested. This is probably why the pitchers are shaped like tiny toilet bowls; their shape allows for a large sticky surface area for insects to get stuck while prey that has already been captured is funneled down to where digestion and absorption takes place. In a way, these types of pitchers behave surprisngly similar to the sticky traps utilized by other carnivorous plants like sundews (Drosera spp.).

The viscous fluid also comes in handy during the frequent rains that blanket these mountains. As mentioned above, rain would quickly dilute most pitcher fluids but not when the pitcher fluid itself is more dense. Water sits on top of the viscous mucilage and when the pitchers become too heavy, they tip over. The water readily pours out but little if any of the pitcher fluid is lost in the process. It seems that species like N. inermis no longer fight the elements but rather have adapted to meet them head on. As such, they no longer have a need for a large pitcher lid.

Nepenthes jamban  takes the toilet bowl shape to the extreme.

Nepenthes jamban takes the toilet bowl shape to the extreme.

Nepenthes inermis is not alone in having evolved pitchers like this. Viscous pitcher mucilage is a trait shared by its closest relatives - N. dubia, N. flava, N. jacquelineae, N. jamban, N. talangensis, and N. tenuis, as well as even more distantly related species such as N. rafflesiana. Because prey capture is so important for the fitness of individuals, it is no wonder that so many different forms have evolved within this genus. In fact, many experts believe that variations in the way in which prey is captured and utilized is one of the main reasons why Nepenthes have undergone such a dramatic adaptive radiation.

Sadly, the uniqueness in form and function of these pitchers has landed many of these species on the endangered species list. As if habitat destruction wasn’t already pushing some to the brink, species like N. inermis are being poached at alarmingly unsustainable rates. Due to their limited distributions, most populations simply cannot recover from even moderate levels of harvesting. The silver lining in all of this is that many Nepenthes are extremely easy to grow and propagate provided their basic needs are met. As more and more folks enter into the carnivorous plant hobby, hopefully more and more people will be sharing seeds, cuttings, and tissue cultured materials. In doing so, we can hopefully reduce some of the pressures placed on wild populations.

Photos via Wikimedia Commons

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3]