Harmless nectar source or deadly trap: Nepenthes pitchers are activated by rain, condensation and nectar.

Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EJ, UK.
Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (Impact Factor: 5.29). 03/2008; 275(1632):259-65. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2007.1402
Source: PubMed

ABSTRACT The leaves of Nepenthes pitcher plants are specialized pitfall traps which capture and digest arthropod prey. In many species, insects become trapped by 'aquaplaning' on the wet pitcher rim (peristome). Here we investigate the ecological implications of this capture mechanism in Nepenthes rafflesiana var. typica. We combine meteorological data and continuous field measurements of peristome wetness using electrical conductance with experimental assessments of the pitchers' capture efficiency. Our results demonstrate that pitchers can be highly effective traps with capture rates as high as 80% but completely ineffective at other times. These dramatic changes are due to the wetting condition of the peristome. Variation of peristome wetness and capture efficiency was perfectly synchronous, and caused by rain, condensation and nectar secreted from peristome nectaries. The presence of nectar on the peristome increased surface wetness mainly indirectly by its hygroscopic properties. Experiments confirmed that pitchers with removed peristome nectaries remained generally drier and captured prey less efficiently than untreated controls. This role of nectar in prey capture represents a novel function of plant nectar. We propose that the intermittent and unpredictable activation of Nepenthes pitcher traps facilitates ant recruitment and constitutes a strategy to maximize prey capture.

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Holger Bohn