You may laugh at all of those “fail” memes but a carnivorous plant has proven that failing can mean success when it comes to catching more ants for dinner.
This plant that plays dumb is the pitcher plant (Nepenthes ventricosa) of Borneo, one of those fascinating insectivorous plants that traps and eats bugs – in this case, ants. The plant gets its name from the large curved leaves that form a pitcher shape. When the leaves are wet, ants slip and slide over the rim and into the sticky bottom of the pitcher where they’re consumed. That makes it seem like the best way to fill up on ants is to keep those leaves wet and slick.
According to a study published in the current edition of the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers lead by Bristol University biologist Ulrike Bauer, some pitcher plants turn off their leaf wetting mechanism and let them dry out, allowing ants to crawl over them without slipping to their demise. To find out why, they followed and analyzed the ants.
The team discovered that the ants walking on the plant's rim-shaped leaves picked up nectar on their feet, which they then left in a trail as they walked back to the nest – a trail that other ants later followed back to the pitcher plant. By then, the plants had turned their sprinklers back on, making the leaves slippery again. By artificially wetting the leaves of some of the plants and counting their captures, the team proved that the plants “failing” to capture some ants ended up eating many more later on, according to Bauer.
… naturally alternating traps caught 36 percent more prey than wetted traps. Such a stark difference explains why a mechanism that, at first sight, seems disadvantageous can persist in evolution.
Does this ‘success through failure’ mean that pitcher plants are smart or that ants are really slow to catch on? Most likely, it means we have a lot more to learn about nature.