A Poop-Loving Moss Discovered Living on Poop-Eating Pitcher Plants

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Poop mosses are strange to say the least. They hail from the family Splachnaceae and most live out their entire (short) lives growing on poop. Needless to say, they are fascinating plants. Recently, one species of poop moss known to science as Tayloria octoblepharum was discovered growing in Borneo for the first time. As if this range expansion wasn’t exciting enough, their growing location was very surprising. Populations of this poop-loving moss were found growing in the pitchers of two species of poop-eating pitcher plants in the genus Nepenthes!

The pitcher of  Nepenthes lowii  both look and function like a toilet bowl.

The pitcher of Nepenthes lowii both look and function like a toilet bowl.

The wide pitcher mouth of  Nepenthes macrophylla  offer a nice seating area for visiting tree shrews.

The wide pitcher mouth of Nepenthes macrophylla offer a nice seating area for visiting tree shrews.

The pitchers of both Nepenthes lowii and N. macrophylla get a majority of their nutrient needs not by trapping and digesting arthropods but instead from the feces of tree shrews. They have been coined toilet pitchers as they exhibit specialized adaptations that allow them to collect feces. Tree shrews sit on the mouth of the pitcher and lap up sugary secretions from the lid. As they eat, they poop down into the pitcher, providing the plant with ample food rich in nitrogen. Digestion is a relatively slow process so much of the poop that enters the pitcher sticks around for a bit.

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During a 2013 bryophyte survey in Borneo, a small colony of poop moss was discovered growing in the pitcher of a N. lowii. This obviously fascinated botanists who quickly made the connection between the coprophagous habits of these two species. On a return trip, more poop moss was discovered growing in a N. macrophylla pitcher. This population was fertile, indicating that it was able to successfully complete its life cycle within the pitcher environment. It appears that these two toilet pitchers offer ample niche space for this tiny, poop-loving moss. If this doesn’t convince you of just how incredible and complex the botanical world is, I don’t know what will!

Pick up your very own Shrew Lew Sticker here!

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

Further Reading: [1]




Saving Bornean Peatlands is a Must For Conservation

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The leading cause of extinction on this planet is loss of habitat. As an ecologist, it pains me to see how frequently this gets ignored. Plants, animals, fungi - literally every organism on this planet needs a place to live. Without habitat, we are forced to pack our flora and fauna into tiny collections in zoos and botanical gardens, completely disembodied from the environment that shaped them into what we know and love today. That’s not to say that zoos and botanical gardens don’t play critically important roles in conservation, however, if we are going to stave off total ecological meltdown, we must also be setting aside swaths of land.

There is no way around it. We cannot have our cake and eat it too. Land conservation must be a priority both at the local and the global scale. Wild spaces support life. They buffer it from storms and minimize the impacts of deadly diseases. Healthy habitats filter the water we drink and, for many people around the globe, provide much of the food we eat. Every one of us can think back to our childhood and remember a favorite stretch of stream, meadow, or forest that has since been gobbled up by a housing development. For me it was a forested stream where I learned to love the natural world. I would spend hours playing in the creek, climbing trees, and capturing bugs to show my parents. Since that time, someone leveled the forest, built a house, and planted a lawn. With that patch of forest went all of the insects, birds, and wildflowers it once supported.

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Scenarios like this play out all too often and sadly on a much larger scale than a backyard. Globally, forests have felt taken the brunt of human development. Though it is hard to get a sense of the scope of deforestation on a global scale, the undisputed leaders in deforestation are Brazil and Indonesia. Though the Amazon gets a lot of press, few may truly grasp the gravity of the situation playing out in Southeast Asia.

Deforestation is a clear and present threat throughout tropical Asia. This region is growing both in its economy and population by about 6% every year and this growth has come at great cost to the environment. Indonesia (alongside Brazil) accounts for 55% of the world’s deforestation rates. This is a gut-wrenching statistic because Indonesia alone is home to the most extensive area of intact rainforest in all of Asia. So far, nearly a quarter of Indonesia’s forests have been cleared. It was estimated that by 2010, 2.3 million hectares of peatland forests had been felled and this number shows little signs of slowing. Experts believe that if these rates continue, this area could lose the remainder of its forests by 2056.

Consider the fact that Southeast Asia contains 6 of the world’s 25 biodiversity hotspots and you can begin to imagine the devastating blow that the levelling of these forests can have. Much of this deforestation is done in the name of agriculture, and of that, palm oil and rubber take the cake. Southeast Asia is responsible for 86% of the world’s palm oil and 87% of the world’s natural rubber. What’s more, the companies responsible for these plantations are ranked among some of the least sustainable in the world.

Palm oil plantations where there once was rainforest. 

Palm oil plantations where there once was rainforest. 

Borneo is home to a bewildering array of life. Researchers working there are constantly finding and describing new species, many of which are found nowhere else in the world. Of the roughly 15,000 plant species known from Borneo, botanists estimate that nearly 5,000 (~34%) of them are endemic. This includes some of the more charismatic plant species such as the beloved carnivorous pitcher plants in the genus Nepenthes. Of these, 50 species have been found growing in Borneo, many of which are only known from single mountain tops.

It has been said that nowhere else in the world has the diversity of orchid species found in Borneo. To date, roughly 3,000 species have been described but many, many more await discovery. For example, since 2007, 51 new species of orchid have been found. Borneo is also home to the largest flower in the world, Rafflesia arnoldii. It, along with its relatives, are parasites, living their entire lives inside of tropical vines. These amazing plants only ever emerge when it is time to flower and flower they do! Their superficial resemblance to a rotting carcass goes much deeper than looks alone. These flowers emit a fetid odor that is proportional to their size, earning them the name “carrion flowers.”

Rafflesia arnoldii  in all of its glory.

Rafflesia arnoldii in all of its glory.

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If deforestation wasn’t enough of a threat to these botanical treasures, poachers are having considerable impacts on Bornean botany. The illegal wildlife trade throughout southeast Asia gets a lot of media attention and rightfully so. At the same time, however, the illegal trade of ornamental and medicinal plants has gone largely unnoticed. Much of this is fueled by demands in China and Vietnam for plants considered medicinally valuable. At this point in time, we simply don’t know the extent to which poaching is harming plant populations. One survey found 347 different orchid species were being traded illegally across borders, many of which were considered threatened or endangered. Ever-shrinking forested areas only exacerbate the issue of plant poaching. It is the law of diminishing returns time and time again.

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But to lump all Bornean forests under the general label of “rainforest” is a bit misleading. Borneo has multitude of forest types and one of the most globally important of these are the peatland forests. Peatlands are vital areas of carbon storage for this planet because they are the result of a lack of decay. Whereas leaves and twigs quickly breakdown in most rainforest situations, plant debris never quite makes it that far in a peatland. Plant materials that fall into a peatland stick around and build up over hundreds and thousands of years. As such, an extremely thick layer of peat is formed. In some areas, this layer can be as much as 20 meters deep! All the carbon tied up in the undecayed plant matter is carbon that isn’t finding its way back into our atmosphere.

Sadly, tropical peatlands like those found in Borneo are facing a multitude of threats. In Indonesia alone, draining, burning, and farming (especially for palm oil) have led to the destruction of 1 million hectares (20%) of peatland habitat in only one decade. The fires themselves are especially worrisome. For instance, it was estimated that fires set between 1997-1998 and 2002-2003 in order to clear the land for palm oil plantations released 200 million to 1 billion tonnes of carbon into our atmosphere. Considering that 60% of the world’s tropical peatlands are found in the Indo-Malayan region, these numbers are troubling.

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The peatlands of Borneo are totally unlike peatlands elsewhere in the world. Instead of mosses, gramminoids, and shrubs, these tropical peatlands are covered in forests. Massive dipterocarp trees dominate the landscape, growing on a spongey mat of peat. What’s more, no water flows into these habitats. They are fed entirely by rain. The spongey nature of the peat mat holds onto water well into the dry season, providing clean, filtered water where it otherwise wouldn’t be available.

This lack of decay coupled with their extremely acidic nature and near complete saturation makes peat lands difficult places for survival. Still, life has found a way, and Borneo’s peatlands are home to a staggering diversity of plant life. They are so diverse, in fact, that when I asked Dr. Craig Costion, a plant conservation officer for the Rainforest Trust, for something approaching a plant list for an area of peatland known as Rungan River region, he replied:

“Certainly not nor would there ever be one in the conceivable future given the sheer size of the property and the level of diversity in Borneo. There can be as many as a 100 species per acre of trees in Borneo... Certainly a high percentage of the species would only be able to be assigned to a genus then sit in an herbarium for decades until someone describes them.”

And that is quite remarkable when you think about it. When you consider that the Rungan River property is approximately 385,000 acres, the number of plant species to consider quickly becomes overwhelming. To put that in perspective, there are only about 500 tree species native to the whole of Europe! And that’s just considering the trees. Borneo’s peatlands are home to myriad plant species from liverworts, mosses, and ferns, to countless flowering plants like orchids and others. We simply do not know what kind of diversity places like Borneo hold. One could easily spend a week in a place like the Rungan River and walk away with dozens of plant species completely new to science. Losing a tract of forest in such a biodiverse is a huge blow to global biodiversity.

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Nepenthes ampullaria  relies on decaying plant material within its pitcher for its nutrient needs.

Nepenthes ampullaria relies on decaying plant material within its pitcher for its nutrient needs.

Also, consider that all this plant diversity is supporting even more animal diversity. For instance, the high diversity of fruit trees in this region support a population of over 2,000 Bornean orangutans. That is nearly 4% of the entire global population of these great apes! They aren’t alone either, the forested peatlands of Borneo are home to species such as the critically endangered Bornean white-bearded gibbon, the proboscis monkey, the rare flat-headed cat, and the oddly named otter civet. All these animals and more rely on the habitat provided by these forests. Without forests, these animals are no more.

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The flat-headed cat, an endemic of Borneo. 

The flat-headed cat, an endemic of Borneo. 

At this point, many of you may be feeling quite depressed. I know how easy it is to feel like there is nothing you can do to help. Well, what if I told you that there is something you can do right now to save a 385,000 acre chunk of peatland rainforest? That’s right, by heading over to the Rainforest Trust’s website (https://www.rainforesttrust.org/project/saving-stronghold-critically-endangered-bornean-orangutan/) you can donate to their campaign to buy up and protect the Rungan River forest tract.

Click on the logo to learn more!

Click on the logo to learn more!

By donating to the Rainforest Trust, you are doing your part in protecting biodiversity in one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. What’s more, you can rest assured that your money is being used effectively. The Rainforest Trust consistently ranks as one of the top environmental protection charities in the world. Over their nearly three decades of operation, the Rainforest Trust has protected more than 15.7 million acres of land in over 20 countries. Like I said in the beginning, habitat loss is the leading cause of extinction on this planet. Without habitat, we have nothing. Plants are that habitat and by supporting organizations such as the Rainforest Trust, you are doing your part to fight the biggest threats our planet faces. 

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10]

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12]

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]

Rhizanthes lowii

Imagine hiking through the forests of Borneo and coming across this strange object. It's hairy, it's fleshy, and it smells awful. With no vegetative bits lying around, you may jump to the conclusion that this was some sort of fungus. You would be wrong. What you are looking at is the flower of a strange parasitic plant known as Rhizanthes lowii.

R. lowii is a holoparasite. It produces no photosynthetic tissues whatsoever. In fact, aside from its bizarre flowers, its doesn't produce anything that would readily characterize it as a plant. In lieu of stems, leaves, and roots, this species lives as a network of mycelium-like cells inside the roots of their vine hosts. Only when it comes time to flower will you ever encounter this species (or any of its relatives for that matter).

The flowers are interesting structures. Their sole purpose, of course, is to attract their pollinators, which in this case are carrion flies. As one would imagine, the flowers add to their already meaty appearance a smell that has been likened to that of a rotting corpse. Even more peculiar, however, is the fact that these flowers produce their own heat. Using a unique metabolism, the flower temperature can rise as much as 7 degrees above ambient. Even more strange is the fact that the flowers seem to be able to regulate this temperature. Instead of a dramatic spike followed by a gradual decrease in temperature, flowers are able to maintain this temperature gradient throughout the flowering period.

There could be many reasons for doing this. It could enhance the rate of floral development. This is a likely possibility as temperature increases have been recorded during bud development. It could also be used as a way of enticing pollinators, which can use the flower to warm up. This seems unlikely given its tropical habitat. Another possibility is that it helps disperse its odor by volatilizing the smelly compounds. In a similar vein, it may improve the carrion mimicry. Certainly this may play a role, however, flies don't seem to have an issue finding carrion that has cooled to ambient temperature. Finally, it has also been suggested that the heat may improve fertilization rates. This also seems quite likely as thermoregulation has been shown to continue after the flowers have withered away.

Regardless of its true purpose, the combination of lifestyle, appearance, and heat producing properties of this species makes for a bizarrely spectacular floral encounter. To see this plant in the wild would be a truly special event.

Photo Credit: Ch'ien C. Lee - www.wildborneo.com.my/photo.php?f=cld1500900.jpg

Further Reading:

http://www.jstor.org/stable/4222678?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~ccdavis/pdfs/Nikolov_et_al_AJB_2014.pdf

A Litter Trapping Orchid From Borneo

Epiphytes live a unique lifestyle that can be quite challenging. Sure, they have a relatively sturdy place on a limb or a trunk, however, blistering sun, intense heat, and plenty of wind can create hostile conditions for life. One of the hardest things to come by in the canopy is a steady source of nutrients. Whereas plants growing in the ground have soil, epiphytes must make do with whatever falls their way. Some plants have evolve a morphology that traps falling litter. There are seemingly endless litter trapping plants out there but today I want to highlight one in particular.

Meet Bulbophyllum beccarii. This beautiful orchid is endemic to lowland areas of Sarawak, Borneo. What is most interesting about this species is how it grows. Instead of forming a clump of pseudobulbs on a branch or trunk, this orchid grows upwards, wrapping around the trunk like a leafy green snake. At regular intervals it produces tiny egg-shapes pseudobulbs which give rise to rather large, cup-shaped leaves. These leaves are the secret to this orchids success.

The cup-like appearance of the leaves is indeed functional. Each one acts like, well, a cup. As leaves and other debris fall from the canopy above, the orchid is able to capture them. Over time, a community of fungi and microbes decompose the debris, turning it into a nutrient-rich humus. Instead of having to compete for soil nutrients like terrestrial species, this orchid makes its own soil buffet!

If that wasn't strange enough, the flowers of this species are another story entirely. Every so often when conditions are just right, the plant produces an inflorescence packed full of hundreds of tiny flowers. The flowers dangle down below the leaves and emit an odor that has been compared to that of rotting fish. Though certainly disdainful to our sensibilities, it is not us this plant is trying to attract. Carrion flies are the main pollinators of this orchid and the scent coupled with their carrion-like crimson color attracts them in swarms.

The flies are looking for food and a place to lay their eggs. This is all a ruse, of course. Instead, they end up visiting a flower with no rewards whatsoever. Regardless, some of these flies will end up picking up and dropping off pollinia, thus helping this orchid achieve pollination.

Epiphyte diversity is incredible and makes up a sizable chunk of overall biodiversity in tropical forests. The myriad ways that epiphytic plants have adapted to life in the canopy is staggering. Bulbophyllum beccarii is but one player in this fascinating niche.

Photo Credits:
Ch'ien C. Lee - http://www.wildborneo.com.my/

and

Peter AJ Chong - bit.ly/1XLgFE6

Further Reading:
http://www.orchidspecies.com/bulbbeccarrii.htm

The Fanged Pitcher Plant of Borneo

As mammals, and even more so as apes, we tend to associate fangs with threats. The image of two dagger-like teeth can send chills up ones spine. Perhaps it is fitting then that a carnivorous plant from a southeast Asian island would sport a pair of ominous fangs. Friends, I present to you the bizarre fanged pitcher plant (Nepenthes bicalcarata).

This ominous-looking species is endemic to Borneo and gets its common name from the pair of "fangs" that grow from the lid, just above the mouth of the pitcher. Looks aren't the only unique feature of this species though. Indeed, the entire ecology of the fanged pitcher plant is fascinatingly complex.

Lets tackle the obvious question first. What is up with those fangs? There has been a lot of debate among botanists as to what function they might serve. Some have posited the idea that they may deter mammals from feeding on pitcher contents. Others see them as mere artifacts of development and attribute no function to them whatsoever.

In reality they are involved in capturing insects. The fangs bear disproportionately large nectaries that lure prey into a precarious position just above the mouth of the pitcher. Strangely enough, this may have evolved to compensate for the fact that the inside of the pitchers are not very slippery. Whereas other pitcher plant species rely on waxy walls to make sure prey can't escape, the fanged pitcher plant has relatively little waxy surface area within its pitchers. What's more, the pitchers are not very effective at capturing prey unless they have been wetted by rain. The fluid within the pitchers also differs from other Nepenthes in that it is not very acidic, contains few digestive enzymes, and isn't very viscous. Why?

Worker ants cleaning the pitcher (left) and an ant brood chamber inside of the pitcher tendril (right).

Worker ants cleaning the pitcher (left) and an ant brood chamber inside of the pitcher tendril (right).

The answer lies with a specific species of ant. The fanged pitcher plant is the sole host of a carpenter ant known scientifically as Camponotus schmitzi. The tendrils that hold the pitchers themselves are hollow and serve as nest sites for these ants. Ant colonies take up residence in the tendrils and will hunt along the insides of the pitchers. In fact, they literally go swimming in the pitcher fluid to find their meals!

This is why the pitcher fluid differs so drastically from other Nepenthes. The fanged pitcher plant actually does very little of its own digestion. Instead, it relies on the resident ant colony to subdue and breakdown large prey. As a payment for offering the ants room and board, the ants help the plant feed via the breakdown of captured insects (which are often disposed of in the pitchers) and the deposition of nitrogen-rich feces. Indeed, plants without a resident ant colony are found to be significantly smaller and produce fewer pitchers than those with ants. The ants also protect and clean the plant, removing fungi and hungry insect pests.

Sadly, like many other species of Nepenthes, over-harvesting for the horticultural trade as well as habitat destruction have caused a decline in numbers in the wild. With species like this it is so important to make sure you are buying nursery grown specimens. Never buy a wild collected plant! Also, if you are lucky enough to grow these plants, propagate them! Only by reducing the demand for wild specimens can we hope of curbing at least some of the poaching threats. Also, what better way to get your friends into gardening than by sharing with them amazing carnivores like the fanged pitcher plant.

Female flowers

Female flowers

Photo Credit: [1]
Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

The Darth Vader Begonia

Cue the Imperial March, it is time to talk about the Darth Vader Begonia. This atramentous plant had only been known to the world since 2014. The discovery of this species (as well as two other new Begonia species) occured in Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. This region is a hot spot for plant diversity and this is especially true for begonias. A combination of diverse terrain and varied microclimates have led to an explosion of speciation events resulting in endemic species found nowhere else in the world.

With its leaves so deeply green that they almost appear black and deep red flowers it's not a stretch to imagine why this begonia has been named Begonia darthvaderiana. Until 2014, no one had ever laid eyes on this species, not even the locals. It was found growing in the deep shade of a forested cliff mixed in among other shade-loving vegetation. It is likely that the dark coloration of its leaves enables it to take advantage of what little sunlight makes it down to the forest floor.

Not long after its discovery was reported, something alarming happened. The so-called Darth Vader begonia began appearing for sale online. With a price tag of $80+, this is one expensive little plant. Apparently a plant poacher from Taiwan managed to smuggle some plants out of the country. This is especially upsetting because of its extreme rarity. Despite its namesake, the force is not strong enough to protect this species from greedy collectors. If you have somehow managed to obtain one of these plants, please do everything in your power to propagate it. Plants produced in captivity take pressure off of wild populations.

This was not the only new begonia species to be named after a Star Wars character. A larger species with green and silver leaves was given the scientific name of Begonia amidalae after Queen Amidala. It too is endemic to the region. The future of these plants as well as many others hangs in the balance. A growing human population is putting pressure on the rainforests of Borneo. As more and more forest is lost to development, countless endemic species are disappearing with it. This is yet another example of why land conservation is a must. Please consider lending your support to organizations such as the Rainforest Trust. Together, we can ensure that there are wild spaces left.

CLICK HERE TO HELP LAND CONSERVATION EFFORTS IN BORNEO

Photo Credit: Che-Wei Lin, Shih-Wen Chung, & Ching-I Peng

Further Reading: [1] [2]