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Regular pitcher plants trap insects and digest them to obtain nitrogen, which they then use to grow. One species, Nepenthes lowii derives nitrogen from the feces of Mountain Tree Shrews, which are abundant in Borneo’s montane forests. It is literally Mother Nature’s Toilet.
Researchers used video cameras to record activity around mature N. lowii plants in a Bornean cloud forest. They chose to focus on the mature plants because the juvenile plants grow near the ground and feed on insects. The adult plants are aerial and consume faeces instead. Indeed, the video evidence showed the shrews licking nectar underneath the “lid” of the pitcher plant and even excreting into the pitcher itself. They were also seen to rub their genitals against the lid to mark the plants with their scent. As it turns out, they usually visit the same “circuit” of pitchers when feeding. Just like us, it seems the shrews have their favourite toilets too…
N. lowii has several adaptations that allow it to use poop as its nitrogen source. Unlike most pitchers, the rim is not slippery, to ensure that the shews don’t fall in. Furthermore, the pitcher is heavily strengthened to support the weight of a tree shrew. N. lowii produces more nectar than any other species in the same genus, to make sure it can satisfy a tree shrew appetite. The lid is positioned such that while the tree shrew feeds on the nectar, it is also in a good position to defecate into the pitcher. There was almost no evidence that the aerial pitchers trapped insects at all. As one of the researchers said, “ They’ve effectively lost the capacity to trap animals.”
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