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