2015 Photo Contest, Nature, 2nd prize

Vegetables with an Attitude


Christian Ziegler

National Geographic Magazine/GEO

18 September, 2013

An abundance of life can be found inside a pitcher of a Nepenthes rajah after a tree shrew has defecated. Dozens of specialized insect larvae species have evolved immunity to the digestive fluids of the plants and can thrive in this environment. Nepenthes rajah has some of the largest pitchers of the genus, with a capacity of three liters. The plant has been known to capture lizards and small mammals, but tree shrews lick the nectar that gathers beneath the lid of the pitcher unscathed. Their bodies are precisely the length of the distance from the rim of the pitcher to the digestive liquid. As they lick the nectar, they mark their feeding territory by urinating and defecating. Often this occurs directly into the pitcher cup, thus providing the plant with phosphorus and nitrogen.

Carnivorous plants have evolved repeatedly in different parts of the world, always in response to super low nutrient environments. While other plants are struggling to find nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen, carnivorous plants catch these themselves in ingenious ways. Until recently scientists thought they all operated in a similar way, catching bugs and digesting them. However, we are now discovering that things are much more complicated, with an amazing variety of complex plant-animal interactions.

About the photographer

Christian Ziegler

He is a regular contributor to National Geographic magazine and has been widely published in other magazines such as Geo, Smithsonian, and BBC Wildlife. Christian’s aim is to hig...

Technical information

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Canon EOS 5D Mark III

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