An Ocean Apart, Carnivorous Pitcher Plants Create Similar Communities

August 28, 2018
Leonora Bittleston traveled to Borneo to collect pitcher plant liquid for her studies, like those from the Veitch’s pitcher-plant here. PHOTO COURTESY OF LEONORA BITTLESTON

As a graduate student in Naomi Pierce's lab, Leonora Bittleston (PhD '17) traveled to Nepenthes Camp in the Maliau Basin, an elevated conservation area in Malaysian Borneo with a rich, isolated rainforest ecosystem, to collect pitcher plants. The carnivorous pitcher plants trap, drown and digest their animal prey to supplement nutrient-poor soils. Bittleston collected samples of the liquid inside the pitchers to compare to pitcher plants in Massachusetts and along the Gulf Coast. Though unrelated, both plant families had similar adaptations for trapping prey and are a perfect example of convergent evolution. Bittleston wondered if the microbe and animal communities housed in the liquid were as similar as the traps themselves. 

Bittleston and co-researchers, Anne Pringle (University of Wisconsin-Madison) and Naomi Pierce discovered that indeed the communities created inside the pitcher plants converge just as the shape and function of the plants do. Their work is published in the journal eLife. Harvard Gazette

Image: Leonora Bittleston in Borneo with pitcher plants. Courtesy Leonora Bittleston.