Published online 3 January 2002 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news020101-4


Plant has taste for termites

Pitcher plants are fussy eaters.

One wrong step and termites invite themselves for dinner.One wrong step and termites invite themselves for dinner.© Nature

Armed with sticky and slippery traps but rooted to the spot, most carnivorous plants have no choice but to consume any small creature unlucky enough to stumble into them. But a pitcher plant in Brunei's rainforest seems to have refined the art of fussy eating, luring only termites to their doom.

The picky pitcher plant, Nepenthes albomarginata, can catch thousands of termites in its slippery-walled, jug-shaped leaves filled with digestive fluid.

N. albomarginata 's preference for a single type of prey is a first for carnivorous plants, according to Marlis Merbach at the University of Frankfurt in Germany and colleagues, who made the discovery1. Moreover, the plant is the only one known to offer up its own tissue as bait.

Merbach's team found that N. albomarginata entices termites with white hairs that encircle the top of its pitchers. Foraging termites called Hospitalitermes bicolor find these hairs irresistible, alerting nest-mates to the booty before snipping them off and carrying them back home. Termites that stumble as they forage fall into the pitcher.

A passing column of termites is a rare occurrence, but because they are social insects the plant can be sure of a big meal when it gets lucky. "They really strike gold," says Otto Pellmyr, who studies plant and animal interactions at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. "If you can attract one you can attract a whole nest."

In one minute, Merbach's team saw up to 22 termites fall into N. albomarginata 's pitchers. Typically, plants in the canopy trap only a few dozen insects in the six-month life span of a pitcher.

Most pitcher plants live high in the rainforest canopy and use markings or scent to attract winged insects to their doom. N. albomarginata lives on the gloomy forest floor, where termites are one of the few groups of animals available.

The plant's subtle strategy is a perfect example of adaptive radiation, says Pellmyr. This is when the use of biological tools to fill a new ecological niche gives rise to new species. "There are no other species with this kind of specialization," he says. 

  • References

    1. Merbach, M. A. et al. Mass march of termites into the deadly trap. Nature 415, 36 - 37 (2002). | Article | ISI | ChemPort |