Convergent Carnivores

A carnivorous lifestyle has evolved independently in numerous plant lineages. Despite the similarities between genera like Nepenthes, Sarracenia, and Cepholotus they are not closely related. Researchers have wondered how the highly modified leaves of various carnivorous plant species evolved into the insect trapping and digesting organs that we see today. Thanks to a recent article published in Nature, it has been revealed that the mechanisms responsible for carnivory in plants are a case of convergent evolution.

This research all started with the Australian pitcher plant Cepholotus follicularis. More closely related to wood sorrels (Oxalis spp.) than either of the other two pitcher plant families, this species offers a unique window into the genetic controls on pitcher development. Cepholotus produces two different kinds of leaves - normal, photosynthetic leaves and the deadly pitcher leaves that have made it famous the world over.

By observing which genes are activated during the development of these different types of leaves, the research team was able to identify which alleles have been modified. In doing so, they were able to identify genes involved in producing the nectar that attracts their insect prey as well as the genes involved in producing the slippery waxy coating that keeps trapped insects from escaping. But they also found something even more interesting.

Next, the team took a closer look at the digestive fluids produced by Cepholotus as well as many other unrelated carnivorous plant species from around the world. In doing so, the team made a startling discovery. They found that the genes involved in synthesizing the deadly digestive cocktails among these disparate lineages have a similar evolutionary origin.

Although they are unrelated, the ability to digest insects seems to have its origins in defending plants against fungi. You have probably heard someone say that fungi are more similar to animals than they are plants. Well, the polymer that makes up the cell walls of fungi is the same polymer that makes up the exoskeleton of insects - chitin. By comparing the carnivorous plant genes to those of the model plant Arabidopsis, the team found that similar genes became active when plants were exposed to fungal pathogens.

It appears that carnivorous plants around the world have all converged on a system in which genes used to defend themselves against fungal infection have been co-opted to digest insect bodies. Taken together, these results show that the path to carnivory in plants is surprisingly narrow. Evolution doesn't always require the appearance of new alleles but rather a retooling of genes that are already in place. 

Photo Credits: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1]

 

 

An Introduction to Cephalotus follicularis - A Strange Carnivore From Australia

In a small corner of western Australia grows one of the most unique carnivorous plants in the world. Commonly referred to as the Albany pitcher plant, Cephalotus follicularis is, evolutionarily speaking, distinct among the pitcher plants. It is entirely unrelated to both the Sarraceniaceae and the Nepenthaceae.

This stunning case of convergent evolution stems from similar ecological limitations. Cephalotus grows in nutrient poor areas and thus must supplement itself with insect prey. It does so by growing modified leaves that are shaped into pitchers. The lid of each pitcher serves two purposes. It keeps rain from diluting the digestive enzymes within and it also confuses insects.

A close inspection of the lid will reveal that it is full of clear spots. These spots function as windows, allowing light to penetrate and confuse insects that have landed on the trap. As they fly upwards into the light, they crash into the lid and, with a little help from physics, fall down into the trap.

The relationship of Cephalotus to other plants has been the object of much scrutiny. Though it is unique enough to warrant its own family (Cephalotaceae), its position in the greater scheme of plant taxonomy originally had it placed in Saxifragales. Genetic analysis has since moved it out of there and now places it within the order Oxalidales. What is most intriguing to me is that the closest sister lineage to this peculiar little pitcher plant are a group of trees in the family Brunelliaceae. Evolution can be funny like that.

Regardless of its relationship to other plants, Cephalotus follicularis has gained quite a bit of attention over the last few years. Its strange appearance and carnivorous habit have earned it a bit of stardom in the horticultural trade. A single specimen can fetch a hefty price tag. As a result, collecting from wild populations has caused a decline in numbers that are already hurting due to habitat destruction. Luckily they are easy to culture in captivity, which will hopefully take pressure off of them in the wild.

What's more, the loss of Cephalotus from the wild is hurting more than just the plant. A species of flightless, ant-mimicking fly requires Cephalotus pitchers to rear its young. They don't seem to mind growing up in the digestive enzymes of the pitchers and to this date, their larvae have been found living nowhere else. If you are lucky enough to grow one of these plants, share the wealth. Captive reared specimens not only take pressure off wild populations, they are also much hardier. Lets keep wild Cephalotus in the wild!