• Science

Captivating Carnivore: Introducing Nepenthes erucoides

Meet Nepenthes erucoides, a newly described species of ‘pitcher plant’ which boasts an unusual claim to fame. With their cauldrons of digestive enzymes used to lure and trap unsuspecting insects (and in some cases, small rodents), pitcher plants are already as bizarre and mysterious among plants as they are striking, but Nepenthes erucoides is particularly unusual, potentially being the hairiest species in this pitcher plant family.

The species was so-named due to the densely hairy tendrils of its newly emerging leaves, which resemble exuberantly hairy caterpillars—‘eruca’ is Latin for caterpillar, and the suffix ‘-oides’ means ‘looks like’. 

It was discovered and then characterised on Mount Redondo, the Philippines, by a team that included the Manager Biodiversity Services at Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, Alastair Robinson. At 929 m tall, Mount Redondo is the not-so-lofty highest peak of the island province of Dinagat, off the north-eastern coast of Mindanao, and Nepenthes erucoides was found growing only towards its summit.

Carnivorous plants supplement their diet with ill-fated fauna due to the nutrient-poor soil of their native habitats, and Nepenthes erucoides is a textbook case. It was described from a tiny patch of remnant vegetation within an active nickel-chromite mine, growing on a very thin substrate comprised of "lateritic nickel ore and decomposed chromite rubble", which has been described as the most extreme and mineral-dense substrate known thus far to host Nepenthes.

Found nowhere else, Nepenthes erucoides is a micro-endemic species, and immediately qualifies for the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) status of Critically Endangered. “Innumerable plant species are rendered extinct before they are even discovered, so we are very fortunate that this plant was spotted at all. The plant evolved with the remarkable characteristics that it did precisely because of the phytotoxic, metal-rich bedrock it grows on, and it is that richness that makes the area so valuable to mineral prospectors”, stated Alastair. 

“The find underscores the unfortunate fine-line that humanity treads between being able to extract the minerals crucial to the technology that we use daily and preserving these spectacular examples of specialised biodiversity that can survive nowhere else.”

Want to learn more about Nepenthes erucoides? The species has been formally described in an open-access paper co-authored by Alastair Robinson, Sarah Grace Zamudio and Rolly Balagon Caballero. This publication is the wonderful result of a trial skills-transfer initiative between botanists from Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria and botany students and conservationists in the Philippines, intended to increase local botanical knowledge and improve the rate at which the paltry 3% of remaining native Philippines forests are catalogued and conserved – you can read the paper here.

Obsessed with cut-throat flora? A wide selection of weird and wonderful carnivorous plants are featured on Alastair's Instagram profile.

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