Scientists have discovered two species of carnivorous plants, previously unknown to science, that use slime to catch their prey.

Botanists spotted the new species high in the Andes mountains of southern Ecuador, not far from the border with Peru.

The plant species—dubbed Pinguicula jimburensis and Pinguicula ombrophila,respectively—have been described in a paper published in the journal PhytoKeys.

They form part of the butterworts genus—a group of more than 100 species of flowering plants, known technically as Pinguicula, that have the ability to catch insects with their slimy leaves. Most members of this genus are found in the Northern Hemisphere, unlike the two new members.

Pinguicula ombrophila in the Ecuadoren Andes
Pinguicula ombrophila was first spotted on a nearly vertical rock face at an altitude of about 9,500 feet in the Ecuadorian Andes. The plant has the ability to catch insects with its slimy leaves.
Álvaro Pérez

Researchers first observed the new species during expeditions to numerous remote Ecuadorian habitats where little is known about the local flora.

One of the researchers who took part in the expeditions—Alvaro Pérez with Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador in Quito, Ecuador—is an author of the PhytoKeys paper.

Pérez and his companions collected everything that they thought might be a plant with a range restricted to certain remote locations.

Pinguicula jimburensis was found on the shore of a highland lagoon at an altitude of about 11,110 feet, while Pinguicula ombrophila was spotted on a nearly vertical rock face at an altitude of about 9,500 feet.

Subsequently, Pérez and his colleagues examined what they had found and reached out to specialists with expertise in plant groups that they had limited knowledge about.

Among those Pérez contacted was Tilo Henning—another author of the study with the Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research in Müncheberg, Germany—who had worked on the he genus Pinguicula before in northern Peru. Henning helped to determine that two of the plants Pérez and colleagues came across represented new species.

“It is always a special feeling when one is certain that the plant that was just found is something unknown to science. Especially when considering how little is left of the original pristine habitats and how far mankind has spread even into the remotest areas of this planet,” Henning told Newsweek.

“There are still many species undescribed in the tropics. Mostly of course from hyper-diverse organism groups such as insects or fungi, but even in flowering plants as in the present case. For me and for many of my fellow colleagues I have worked with over the years, finding and describing new species is the ultimate reward for the exhausting fieldwork we do and it is often the exact reason why we started a career in a difficult and under-financed field such as biological systematics and taxonomy.”

The two new species are very ornamental plants, as is the whole genus that they belong to—hence why they are sometimes grown by hobbyists.

Pinguicula plants are small, generally measuring only a few inches in height in diameter. They grow either on the moist peat-like ground of their high Andean habitats, or in some cases, on the surface of rock walls—as with P. ombrophila.

They feature a small rosette of a few leaves and produce “beautiful” bluish or purple flowers with an elongated spur that contains the nectar for attracting pollinating insects.

The upper surface of the leaves of Pinguicula plants is covered with a dew-like sticky slime that insects stick to when they land or walk on them.

Pinguicula jimburensis in the Ecuadorean Andes
Pinguicula jimburensis was found on the shore of a highland lagoon at an altitude of about 11,110 feet. The plant belongs to the butterworts genus, which comprises more than 100 species.
Kabir Montesinos

“They catch small flying or walking insects that land on their leaves or walk on them,” Henning sad. “[The insects] stick to the slime the leaves produce and while trying to escape get stuck to more and more slimy glands until they are exhausted and die.

“The leaves then can partly roll-in their margins to [put] the surface in close contact with the body of the insect. In specialized glands, the plants then produce digestive enzymes to dissolve the nutrients from the insect body. These nutrients are then taken up by other glands on the leave surface and utilized by the plants.”

Carnivorous plants are widely distributed around the world but are relatively rare. Being able to eat animals may provide a competitive advantage in some circumstances, enabling them to thrive in challenging environments, such as high in the Andes.

Only one Pinguicula species—P. calyptrata—had been recorded in Ecuador prior to the latest discovery. But the authors of the PhytoKeys study said there are likely more to be found that are currently unknown to science.

“This will ultimately be told in the laboratory I think,” Henning said. “There might be a small number of new species showing up somewhere in the remote high Andes of northwestern South America that can be recognized as new species by their outer appearance alone. However, the total number of species might be much higher and somewhat hidden in a deceptive morphological similarity between even very distant populations.

“Only molecular analyses can ultimately reveal their genetic distance to each other and hence their taxonomic affinity and degree of relation to the known species.”

Preliminary results by plant geneticists have already revealed an unexpected and significant genetic distance between some South American species, compared to species complexes in other parts of the world, Henning said. (In biology, a species complex is a group of closely related organisms that are so similar that the boundaries between them are often unclear.)

“Hence I believe our two new species will very likely accompanied by more novelties in the near future,” Henning said. “Sadly the question likely will be whether we discover and protect them before they are destroyed with their habitats.”

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