Two newly discovered Andes Mountain plant species have an appetite for insects

'Butterworts' may sound cute, but these plants handle some tough terrain.
Ilinizas Volcanoes under the Quilotoa lagoon in the Andes Mountains in Ecuador. Scientists recently discovered two new carnivorous plant species in the rugged high Andes.

Ilinizas Volcanoes under the Quilotoa lagoon in the Andes Mountains in Ecuador. Scientists recently discovered two new carnivorous plant species in the rugged high Andes. Deposit Photos

An international team of botanists recently discovered two new species of carnivorous plants in the high Andes of southern Ecuador near the Peruvian border. Both species are described in a study published March 24 in the journal PhytoKeys and part of the butterworts group. This group of about 115 species of flowering plants can catch and digest small insects with their sticky leaves. Carnivorous plants use these animals as an additional food source to compensate for any nutritional deficiencies in the soil they’re growing in.

Eating insects gives these plants a competitive advantage over other plants and helps them thrive in challenging habitats like the tropical high Andes Mountains.

[Related: Meet the world’s newest carnivorous plant.]

The team found Pinguicula jimburensis on the shore of a highland lagoon over 11,000 feet high  and Pinguicula ombrophila on a nearly vertical rock face over 9,000 feet high. The lagoon and rock face are within the Amotape-Huancabamba zone, an area with rugged terrain, a varied climate, and known for exceptional biodiversity due to these conditions. The Amotape-Huancabamba zone makes up large portions of southern Ecuador and northern Peru. 

Botanist Álvaro Pérez of the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador and his team were the first to discover the plants and worked with study co-author and botanist Tilo Henning from the Leibniz Center for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF) in Germany.

Photograph of a newly discovered carnivorous plant, Pinguicula ombrophila. CREDIT: Álvaro J. Pérez

“As small and scattered as the species’ suitable habitats are, so is the species composition,” Henning said in a statement. “Both of these new species are only known from a single location, where only a few dozens of plant individuals occur in each case.”

Only one population with about 15 mature individuals was discovered, which makes the species quite vulnerable even if it lives in an isolated and difficult-to-access area. According to the team, this limited distribution is common in the Amotape-Huancabamba zone, and there are many more new plant and animal species awaiting discovery.

Photograph of a newly discovered carnivorous plant, Pinguicula jimburensis. CREDIT: Kabir Montesinos

The discovery of these new species triples the number of butterwort species recorded in Ecuador and the team believes that there are more new species awaiting formal scientific recognition, but finding them has been a race against time.

“The results presented in this study show that the assessment of the Neotropical biodiversity is far from complete. Even in well-known groups such as the carnivorous plants, new taxa are continuously discovered and described, in particular from remote areas that become accessible in the course of the unlimited urban sprawl,” the team wrote in the study. “This is both encouraging and worrying at the same time.”

[Related: Scientists just rediscovered a rare, fungi-eating ‘fairy lantern.’]

They cite relentless urban sprawl and habitat destruction that are a massive threat to biodiversity in general, particularly threatening fragile microhabitats like these plants. While the new species are safe from human interference since they grow in protected areas, human-induced climate change is increasingly affecting carnivorous plants and ecosystems, particularly places like mountain wetlands that rely on regular precipitation.

This reliance on precipitation and waterlogged soil is even reflected in the name Pinguicula ombrophila, which means “rain-loving butterwort,” and more research is needed to study how these rare species will continue to fare as the climate changes.