Despite not possessing a brain, scientists have found a “clever” carnivorous plant in Borneo.
An Asian species of the pitcher plant has shown the ability to use the weather to alter the slipperiness of its traps in order to feast on groups of ants rather than just one or two at a time. The plant’s name comes from its leaves which are bent in a manner that makes the flower look like pitcher. It’s these leaves that act as the traps that send ants sliding to their demise in the mouth of the plant.
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When rainfall is plentiful, the pitcher plants rim gets wet and, as a result, quite slippery. However, when the rain goes away and the sun comes out the surface dries out and ants are able to make the trip inside the plant in order to harvest nectar and safely return up the pitcher. These scout ants then return to their colonies and share the location of this delicious meal with other members of the colony. Following this exchange of information, the ants return to the plant in droves searching for the promised meal. Unbeknownst to these ants on the way, the plant has changed itself back to slippery in order to capture this feast.
Ant-eating plant: Let a few go to catch many
Essentially, by letting a few ants get away the plant ultimately receives a much bigger reward. In order to change its slipperiness, the plant secretes nectar that tells the trapping surface to make itself wetter through condensation which generally doesn’t occur at low humidity levels.
The study was published on Wednesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The study was led by Ulrike Bauer, a biologist from Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences and his team.
Ant-eating plant: Surely not human intelligence
“Of course a plant is not clever in the human sense – it cannot plot. However, natural selection is very relentless and will only reward the most successful strategies,” said Bauer.
While there are presumably more in remote areas of rainforest yet undiscovered, the earth is home to roughly 600 species of carnivorous plants. The bulk of these carnivores are located in areas lacking adequate nutrition in the soil and consequently focus their energies on catching insects and, very rarely, small animals.
“What superficially looks like an arms race between nectar robbers and deadly predators could in fact be a sophisticated case of mutual benefit,” Bauer said.
“As long as the energy gain (eating the nectar) outweighs the loss of worker ants, the ant colony benefits from the relationship just as much as the plant does.”