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Image of carnivorous plants on a mountain side

An international team of researchers have investigated the complexity and innovative evolutionary capabilities of carnivorous plants which capture insects.

The new study, authored by Durham’s Professor Guillaume Chomicki and colleagues, has revealed an explanation for how complex ‘composite’ traits can arise and evolve in unexpected ways in carnivorous pitcher plants.

Complex composite traits

Using a combination of research methods, the team of researchers examined the evolution of the ‘springboard’ trapping feature in two carnivorous pitcher plant species, Nepenthes gracilis and Nepenthes pervillei.

Image of the N Pervillei plant lid with ants

This unique trapping mechanism, used to capture insects, results from three distinct structural, chemical, and mechanical traits (known as composite traits) which work in synergy to provide a new function: catching insects by catapulting them into the pitcher.

The springboard trapping mechanism works only if the three independent traits come together. The lid needs to be horizontal, a waxy surface under the lid ensures the insects can walk but not attach too strongly, and the spring-like behaviour of the lid catapults the insect down into the trap.

The researchers discovered that this springboard trapping system had evolved separately in both species of plant through “spontaneous coincidence”.

Game-changing evolution

The findings of the research, published in one of the world’s leading journals Science, are game-changing in the field of Biosciences, suggesting evolutionary innovations can result from multiple independent biological adaptations to produce new and complex features or traits.

Until now, the origins of composite traits have remained largely a mystery as it requires coordinated evolution of components that might not be beneficial or even functional on their own or in disparate combinations.

These findings highlight the importance of trait variation at the individual level (stochastic plasticity) and chance in generating major evolutionary novelty. It also pinpoints that composite traits can arise even when the distinct components evolve independently of each other, or in other words, a chance encounter of a new beneficial combination.

Image caption: Ants forage for sweet nectar on the underside of an N. pervillei pitcher lid in the Seychelles. Video caption: Super slow motion footage (filmed at 2000 frames per second) of the springboard trapping mechanism in N. gracilis. The impact of rain drops “catapults” ants from the underside of the lid into the fluid-filled trap. Image and video credits: Ulrike Bauer

Find out more

  • Learn more about Guillaume Chomicki, Professor at Durham’s Department of Biosciences
  • Read the full research paper here

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Evolutionary origins in pitcher plants

A team of international researchers, including Professor Guillaume Chomicki from our Department of Biosciences, have revealed ground-breaking insights into the unique adaptations that enable pitcher plant evolution. This study not only deepens our understanding of nature but also holds potential applications in various fields.

Video caption: Video contains graphic footage of ants being consumed by a carnivorous plant. Video credit: Ulrike Bauer

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