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Looking for a Toilet on Mount Kinabalu

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Nepenthes lowii uses its 'toilet' pitchers to collect mammal and bird poop as a source of nutrients. It even looks like a toilet! Photo: Joris van Alphen.

Nepenthes lowii uses its 'toilet' pitchers to collect mammal and bird poop as a source of nutrients. It even looks like a toilet! Photo: Joris van Alphen.

Thankfully this isn’t a story about traveler’s diarrhea — I’m rather happy I haven’t experienced that yet — but rather about a fantastic tropical pitcher plant that serves as a convenient toilet for small mammals and birds. As Joris van Alphen described in a previous post, he, Merlijn Jocqué and I ventured out with our trusty guide Sukaibin Sumail to an undisclosed location in search of two of the most awe inspiring plants in the world.

After a seven-hour climb to a place no botanist has ever ventured (according to our guide), Nepenthes edwardsiana and the ‘toilet’ Nepenthes lowii rewarded us with their wicked cool and showy prey/poop trapping pitchers.

Carnivorous plants are unique in that they capture and ‘consume’ prey. They are adapted to grow in nutrient poor soils requiring additional nutrient uptake from prey trapped in a deep cavity filled with liquid. Inside the pitchers is a sticky slurry of insect doom, full of enzymes and bacteria that turn fallen organisms into breakfast, lunch or dinner. Nepenthes lowii certainly is creative in its diet choice, though. It captures poop — yes, you read that right… poop. To accomplish this, it attracts and feeds small mammals with exudates produced by glands in the inner lid of the pitchers. As the tree shrew sits to feast on this plant-produced meal, its feces fall into the opening of the trap for a nitrogen rich snack for N. lowii — what an awesome strategy for nutrients!

Not only are these toilets cool, but they are just one of the many Nepenthes species that I aim to collect DNA from during the expedition. I estimate on contributing around 70 DNA samples of around 12 species found in the lowland and highland research areas. This data will help to solve the mountain mystery of Mt. Kinabalu and it’s evolution of endemic species.


Previously in this series:

Mystery of the Mountain
Mount Kinabalu: First Sight of the Summit
Mount Kinabalu: In the Footsteps of Wallace
Mount Kinabalu: Love and Loathing in the Rainforest
- Lisa Becking – Mount Kinabalu: A marine biologist lost at forest
- József Geml – Mount Kinabalu: Reliving the Golden Age of Discovery

Rachel Schwallier About the Author: Rachel Schwallier is pursuing her PhD at Leiden University and Naturalis Biodiversity Center. She is particularly interested in how the shape of the pitcher of Nepenthes pitcher plants is adapted to what they “eat”.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Lou Jost 9:13 pm 09/21/2012

    I am really looking forward to more Nepenthes photos in habitat!! These are certainly among the most spectacular plants in the world. Please show us N edwardsiana and N villosa!!

    Link to this
  2. 2. Joris van Alphen 2:01 am 09/24/2012

    Hi Lou,
    At this time I can’t release photos of the other Nepenthes in their habitat, but at the link below you can find an photo I took during the same trip of a wild N. edwardsiana in front of a white background:

    Link to this
  3. 3. Lou Jost 12:21 pm 09/25/2012

    Thanks for the link; I especially liked the insects. But I was really curious to see the whole plants, and how they look in their natural habitat, and what kinds of places do they grow and what plants grow with it.

    Link to this

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