Across the tropical lowlands of Borneo and the nearby Malay Peninsula, tiny cups colored green, red, purple, and black sprout from the forest floor, each filled with deadly liquid. These vessels are actually the specialized leaves of Nepenthes ampullaria, a carnivorous pitcher plant that catches small insects and dead leaves in its maw and digests them with enzymes.
N. ampullaria lacks the sweet nectar that most pitcher plants rely on to lure their prey. Instead, this unique detritivore has evolved a more passive method of acquiring food: an open, funnel-like mouth that simply catches whatever detritus falls in. And because the plants spread by runners to form vast carpets, they catch a lot of debris, playing a vital role in keeping the jungle clean and recycling its nutrients.
But decomposing dead plants and animals is slow work, and if N. ampullaria gets stuffed too full, it can rot. That’s where a Malaysian land crab scientists have named Geosesarma malayanum comes in. These nimble scavengers are immune to the pitcher plants’ juices, allowing them to scurry in and fish out bugs to eat. Some 60 additional types of animals, from mosquitos to the black-spotted sticky frog (Kalophrynus pleurostigma), also use the pitcher plant to help them catch food, spawn, incubate their larvae, or hide from predators. In exchange, N. ampullaria doesn’t just avoid getting overstuffed—it also receives the feces the animals leave behind, which act as fertilizer. The plant digests these too, and uses the additional nitrogen, phosphorous, and other nutrients to thrive.
Other pitcher plants enjoy similarly stinky relationships with local fauna. At least three species attract Bornean tree shrews to their sticky, nectar-rich leaves, with toilet-bowl-shaped pitchers that perfectly cradle the shrews’ derrieres as the rodents enjoy the nectar. Another species employs a similar tactic with bats. Some pitcher plant enthusiasts have even coined a new term to describe these types of carnivorous plants: crapivorous.
Emanuele Biggi is a scientist, photographer, and television presenter on the popular Italian series GEO, broadcast on Rai3. His photographs typically feature the world’s small creatures, helping to raise awareness about the critical roles these organisms play in their environments and the threats they face. You can find more of his work at www.anura.it.
Krista Langlois is a freelance journalist and essayist based in Durango, Colorado. In addition to her work as a contributing editor for bioGraphic, she writes about people and nature for publications including Adventure Journal, The Atlantic, Hakai, National Geographic News, Outside, and Smithsonian. Find more at www.kristaleelanglois.com or on Twitter @cestmoilanglois.