Carnivorous plant thrives after ‘evolving’ into a toilet for animals

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In a bizarre new study, researchers have found that a carnivorous plant has learned to survive by capturing more animal droppings for its nutrients. Nepenthes, also known as tropical pitcher plants, are a genus of carnivorous plants that live in hot, humid, lowland areas. The plants normally use their highly specialised pitcher-shaped leaves to capture mainly insect prey. However, in a paper published last week, experts from the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria found that some Nepenthes are capturing more nitrogen, and therefore nutrients, from mammal droppings as compared to those that capture insects.

Botanist Dr Alastair Robinson, Manager of Biodiversity Services at Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria said: “A handful of Nepenthes species have evolved away from carnivory towards a diet of animal scats.

“We found that nitrogen capture is more than two times greater in species that capture mammal droppings than in other Nepenthes. Insect prey is scarce on tropical peaks above 2200 m, so these plants maximise nutritional returns by collecting and retaining fewer, higher-value nitrogen sources like tree-shrew droppings.”

Nepenthes are some of the most recognisable carnivorous plants on the planet, capturing and digesting organic material in their modified leaves to acquire nitrogen and valuable nutrients that are naturally scarce in their habitats.

There are around 160 named Nepenthes species, and scientists noted that these results may explain why some of the most spectacular species occur at high elevations, where investment in food capture mechanisms is greater and more critical to survival.

For this research, the scientists examined isotope enrichment in Nepenthes tissue samples to compare the levels of externally acquired nitrogen and carbon present.

They compared the species that capture invertebrates with those that are specialised for the collection of mammal scats, also testing co-occurring non-carnivorous plants as reference controls.

Dr Robinson and his team found that the heavier 15N isotope of nitrogen was significantly enriched in all Nepenthes tested as compared to non-carnivorous plants nearby, but that 15N levels were even greater in those Nepenthes specialised to capture mammal droppings.

Their mutualistic relationship with mountain tree shrews was first published in 2009, but the effectiveness of this strategy for obtaining supplementary nutrition was unknown.

Elsewhere in science news, researchers have accidentally stumbled upon the remains of a new species of dinosaur which had 400 teeth tightly compacted in its mouth.

The creature, which belongs to the pterosaur family, used its long jaws to eat in a similar way as ducks and flamingoes do today. The remains of the nearly complete Balaenognathus maeuseri were found in a German quarry after scientists came across it while excavating a large block of limestone containing crocodile bones.

The Bavarian region has been home to the fossils of hundreds of pterosaurs, or flying reptiles, ever since the first of its family were found in the 18th century.

Since then, the quarries of the Franconian Jura have become one of the richest pterosaur localities in the world. Balaenognathus maeuseri, while a newly discovered species, belongs to the same family of flying reptiles.

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This research was led by Professor David Martill of the University of Portsmouth, Hampshire, and involved palaeontologists from England, Germany and Mexico.

Prof Martill said: “The nearly complete skeleton was found in a very finely layered limestone that preserves fossils beautifully. The jaws of this pterosaur are really long and lined with small fine, hooked teeth, with tiny spaces between them like a nit comb.

“The long jaw is curved upwards like an avocet and at the end it flares out like a spoonbill. There are no teeth at the end of its mouth, but there are teeth all the way along both jaws right to the back of its smile.

The teeth of the new pterosaur suggest an extraordinary feeding mechanism while it waded through water. It would use its spoon-shaped beak to funnel the water and then its teeth to squeeze out excess liquid, leaving prey trapped in its mouth.

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