How was the subterranean pitcher plant discovered?
The plant was first discovered a decade ago in 2012, when researchers exploring a previously unstudied mountain came across pitcher plants that appeared to have lost their pitchers.
Co-author Dr Ľuboš Majeský said: “After a careful search, we found two aerial pitchers, a few terrestrial juveniles and a deformed pitcher protruding from the ground.”
“At first we thought it was an accidentally buried pitcher and local environmental conditions had caused the lack of other pitchers. As we continued to find other pitcherless plants, we wondered if a species of pitcher plant had evolved to lose its carnivorous character.
“But then, taking photos, I ripped a cushion of moss from the base of a tree and revealed a pile of richly maroon colored pitchers with shrunken leaves completely devoid of chlorophyll.”
The underground pitchers are different from those of other pitcher plants. Generally, the pitchers are quite fragile, but N. pudicahave developed thicker walls that allow them to separate the soil as they grow.
Burying these structures underground can protect the plant from the dry conditions found in its montane habitat, where it lives between 1100 and 1300 meters above sea level. The researchers also believe that growing them underground also increases the plants’ access to prey, as the burrowing insects burrow to find more stable conditions.
Although pitchers provide food for plants, they can also serve as homes for some species. Mosquito larvae, nematodes and annelid worms have been found living inside N. pudicaincluding Armata of Pristinaa worm measuring less than a millimeter that can live its entire life cycle inside the pitcher.
However, this unique biodiversity could be threatened. Borneo’s rainforests are under threat from a range of factors, including conversion to palm oil plantations and the construction of Indonesia’s new capital, Nusantara.
Whereas N. pudica lives in the mountainous regions of the island, which are part of the Heart of Borneo Conservation Initiative, it lies just outside the boundaries of Kayan Mentarang National Park. As the plant is believed to live in an area of less than four square kilometers, any impact on its home could see it quickly wiped out.
Researchers have called for more protections for the area as they continue to investigate Borneo’s flora, including what may represent another subterranean pitcher plant species found in the east of the island.
In time, more specialized carnivores could be described if the rainforests that house them survive long enough for the plants to be discovered.