Thursday, May 30, 2013

Don't let the nutrients fly away!

Pitcher plants are beautiful but disturbing. Their vase-shaped pitchers are so elegant to look at, yet violate our notion of plants as passive and peaceful, because they are death traps for unwary insects and other small animals that fall in and drown in the pitcher fluid. Pitcher plants (genus Nepenthes) are one of the few carnivorous plants, who also include the Venus Fly Trap and the Bladderwort, that invert the food chain by gaining some of their nutrients from animals.

Nepenthes bicalcarata (by David Sucianto, via Wikimedia Commons)

Why would a photosynthetic organism need to trap animals? After all, they still have green leaves and chlorophyll, like any other plant. But other nutrients, especially nitrogen, are important to plant growth as well. Pitcher plants can grow in nutrient poor soil because they can supplement their intake of nitrogen and other nutrients by trapping and digesting animals, which are especially nitrogen-rich.

Not all animals will die in pitchers, however. Some insects, including the larvae of several dipteran (fly) species, can live in the pitchers and feed on the organic matter found there. The pitcher species Nepenthes bicalcarata also plays host to an ant species, Camponotus schmitzi, that is found only with N. bicalcarata. The ants are somehow able to walk on the slippery inner surface of the pitcher, and predate upon the fly larvae and other organic material, and also feeds on nectar from the plant.

It would seem at first that this is a lousy deal for the plant. The flies and ants are stealing its food right from its mouth! A new research paper published in PLoS ONE shows how the ants and pitcher plants actually derive mutual benefit.

By looking at the nitrogen isotope ratios in the plant tissue, and using isotope labeling experiments, the researchers showed that nitrogen is being transferred from the ants to the nutrients. They also observed how the ants predate upon the fly larvae that live and mature inside the pitchers. Left to their own devices, these larvae would consume the pitcher's nutrient supply, and then literally fly away with the stolen nutrients when they metamorphose into adults. For this they are (harshly) called kleptoparasites, or "thief-parasites". By capturing and eating the flies while they are still larvae or pupae, the ants put a stop to this thievery. The plant itself then recovers these nutrients in the form of the ant colony's waste products.

The ants are hence not only improving the pitcher's prey-capture efficiency, by keeping the slippery pitcher walls clean, but also prevent the nutrients from escaping with the insects. A fascinating story of symbiosis, that reveals just how dynamic and interconnected all these nutritional and behavioral relationships are in Nature.

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