Scientists Discover Creepy, Mysterious Carnivorous Plant Lurking Underground

What we thought we knew about carnivorous plants was quickly called into question after the scientists discovered a new species in the Indonesian province of North Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo.

Baptized Nepenthes pudica it’s what scientists call a pitcher plant: has modified blades known as pitfall traps or pitchers, where it captures its prey. In a strategy hitherto unknown to any other carnivorous plant species with pitfall traps: it operates underground, trapping its prey on the ground.

“We found a pitcher plant that differs markedly from all other known species,” said in a statement Martin Dančák d la Universidad de Palacký in OlomoucCzech Republic, lead author of studypublished in the magazine PhytoKeys, where his team described the new species.

A fully buried shoot with lots of well-developed pitchers uncovered under a cushion of moss. Photo: Martin Dančák

“In fact, this species places its pitchers up to 11 cm long underground, where they form in cavities or directly on the ground and trap animals that live underground, usually ants, mites and beetles”, he added.

Only three other groups of carnivorous plants are known to trap subterranean prey, but they all use very different trapping mechanisms and, unlike Nepenthes pudica, they can only catch tiny organisms.

The plant forms specialized underground shoots with completely white, chlorophyll-free leaves. In addition to lacking its normal green pigmentationthe leaves that support the pitchers are reduced to a fraction of their normal size. The pitchers, however, retain their size and often their reddish color as well.

A shoot with reduced white leaves and well-developed pitchers removed from a cavity under a tree. Photo: Martin Dančák

“Interestingly, we found numerous organisms living inside the jars, including mosquito larvae, nematodes, and a species of worm that was also described as a new species”explained Václav Čermák de la Mendel University in Brno, Czech Republicwho was also part of the research team

The newly discovered species grows on relatively dry summits at an elevation of 1,100–1,300 m. According to its discoverers, this could be why it evolved to move its traps underground. “Our hypothesis is that underground cavities have more stable environmental conditions, including humidity, and presumably there are also more potential prey during dry periods,” he adds. Michal Golos from the University of Bristol, UKwho also worked on this curious plant.

A series of lucky events in 2012 led to the discovery of the species. Ľuboš Majeský of the University Palacky Olomoucpart of the research team, recounted the key moment: “During a several-day trip with our Indonesian colleagues to a previously unexplored mountain, chosen at random from several candidates, we noticed plants that were undoubtedly Nepenthes but they did not produce jars. After careful searching, we found a pair of aerial pitchers, some juvenile terrestrial pitchers, and a misshapen pitcher sticking out of the ground.”

The forested area of ​​Indonesia, where scientists made a discovery. Photo: Martin Dančák

“At first, we thought it was an accidentally buried pitcher and that local environmental conditions had caused the lack of other pitchers. Still, as we continue to encounter other pitcherless plants along the summit climb, we wonder if a pitcher plant species might have evolved toward loss of carnivory, as seen in some other carnivorous plants. But later, while taking photos, I plucked a cushion of moss from the base of a tree and discovered a bunch of maroon pitchers growing from a short shoot with reduced leaves that were completely devoid of chlorophyll.”

The group then reviewed the other plants found and found that all had subterranean shoots with pitchers, confirming that this species specifically targets the subterranean environment.

the scientific name Nepenthes pudica points to the curious behavior of the plant: it is derived from the Latin adjective decent person what does shy mean and reflects the fact that its lower pitchers remain hidden from view.

Nepenthes pudica It is endemic to Borneo.. “This discovery is important for nature conservation in Indonesian Borneo, andbecause it emphasizes its importance as a global biodiversity hotspot. We hope that the discovery of this unique carnivorous plant can help protect Borneo’s rainforests, especially preventing or at least delaying the conversion of virgin forests to oil palm plantations,” concluded Wewin Tjiasmanto of Yayasan Konservasi Biota Lahan Basah, who helped discover the new species.

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