Nepenthes lowii: the plant that likes to be used as a toilet
They’re like toilets on a stick – for tree shrews. Meet Nepenthes lowii, the world’s only known plant that actively collects and consumes poo.
What is the Nepenthes lowii?
Commonly called Low’s pitcher plant, this faeces fan is found on Borneo’s mountain peaks. It begins life as a normal meat-eating vine, with ground-level pitchers that trap and digest ants and other arthropods. But after maturing and snaking up a tree, it develops a taste for faeces and grows a new type of trap that looks – and functions – a lot like a loo.
What does the Nepenthes lowii look like?
Funnel-shaped, with a permanently open lid slathered in buttery nectar, the pitcher attracts a regular patron with a sweet tooth – the mountain tree shrew. The funnel itself is wide and shallow – an ideal place for a shrew to defecate while dining. With its customer’s backside positioned directly above its mouth, the pitcher catches any droppings.
This rather clever adaptation earns the plant a continuous and abundant supply of nourishment in a nutrient-poor habitat. Biologists estimate that 57 to 100 per cent of the plant’s nitrogen intake comes from shrew poo.
What does the Nepenthes lowii do for shrews?
But it’s a two-way street, since the plant produces plenty of sap – more than any other species in its range. Moreover, the shrew cannot digest fibre – it simply chews the flesh of fruits to extract the juices – making N. lowii’s syrup-glazed pitchers that much more important.
Overall, it’s a win-win situation, an exchange of vital nutrients – even if one is eating loads of, well, you-know-what.
David Brian Butvill
Main image: Nepenthes lowii © Getty Images
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