Scientists were traipsing around the island of Borneo when they noticed something that stopped them in their tracks. They saw foliage that looked like that of a pitcher plant—the group of carnivorous plants with modified leaves, called pitfall traps or pitchers, that help them nab prey—but they couldn’t initially see any pitchers.
The mystery deepened even more when they found a deformed pitcher protruding from the soil. They assumed the pitcher had accidentally been buried somehow and kept exploring, but found additional pitcherless plants that continued to perplex and intrigue them.
Then, somewhat by happenstance, one of the researchers was taking photos when he tore some moss off the base of a tree and found a handful of maroon pitchers.
Now, that fateful discovery has led to the identification of a new species of pitcher plant, one that traps and eats bugs underground. Researchers believe Nepenthes pudica is the first recorded pitcher plant that feeds below the surface, according to a paper published in late June in the journal PhytoKeys.
“We were, of course, astonished as nobody would expect that a pitcher plant with underground traps could exist,” Martin Dančák, a botanist at Palacký University in the Czech Republic, tells ScienceNews’ Meghan Rosen.
The name itself is a nod to the plant’s hidden pitchers: Pudica comes from the Latin word for bashful. To nab a meal, N. pudica develops subterranean pitchers that can grow up to 4.3 inches long, according to the researchers. Then, it waits for tasty ants, mites, beetles and other underground critters to fall or wander into the pitchers. Scientists discovered an array of insects in the pitchers, including mosquito larvae, nematodes and even a new worm species.
Carnivorous plants produce digestive enzymes that help them break down and absorb their prey for sustenance. Charles Darwin stumbled upon the first evidence of these special species in 1875, and, since then, researchers have identified more than 700 meat-eating plants.
A handful of other carnivorous, non-pitcher plants catch their prey underground, but their traps are tiny compared to those of N. pudica, which means they can only capture microscopic or very small prey. The new species, however, can capture the same size of prey as other, above-ground pitcher plants.
Because they form underground and must push soil and other debris out of the way as they grow, the new species’ pitchers are thicker and sturdier than those found on other pitcher plants.
N. pudica is also special because it only grows in the Mentarang Hulu district of North Kalimantan at elevations of 3,600 to 4,265 feet above sea level, per the researchers. Scientists and conservationists hope the discovery will help protect Bornean rainforests and, ideally, slow their destruction to make room for oil palm plantations.
“Its discovery underlines the natural richness of Borneo’s rainforest and the necessity to preserve this important ecosystem with its enormous and still undiscovered biodiversity,” the researchers write in the paper.