Science | January 21, 2023 3:54 pm

Some Carnivorous Plants Evolved to Consume Animal Waste

No eating bugs for these plants; they have elevated taste

Pitcher plant
Pitcher plants have a varied diet.
Richard W Sinyem, CC BY 2.0

I can remember the moment when, as a child, I learned that some plants had evolved to eat animals. Needless to say, I thought that this was amazing, and promptly purchased a Venus flytrap — which, not long thereafter, went hungry and died. Still, the concept of carnivorous plants threw a lot of things in my brain into disarray while also upending any concept of a food chain I might have had at the time.

All of which makes this latest development in the world of carnivorous plants all the weirder. As an article at Atlas Obscura reveals, certain members of the pitcher plant family have evolved in a very particular way. Pitcher plants traditionally lure insects into a part of the plant where they are, effectively, digested. As the article points out, there’s a reason for why the plants do this — namely, the soil in which they reside doesn’t have the necessary ingredients to sustain them.

There’s a kind of pitcher plant that lives at high altitudes in Borneo that’s broken from this practice, however. Instead of eating animals, it’s evolved to eat, well, mammal poop. Scientists who studied this plant recently published a study in the journal Annals of Biology, titled “Capture of mammal excreta by Nepenthes is an effective heterotrophic nutrition strategy.” And while that’s certainly the title of a scientific paper, it also makes a pretty convincing argument.

The key takeaway from both article and paper is that this type of plant produces more nitrogen than its counterparts that devour insects. It’s not the most enticing way for the species to thrive, but it seems to have gotten the job done.