7 Carnivorous Wonders of the Plant World
Death traps that seduce insects, frogs and even mice with juicy-looking flesh and sweet nectar and then melt their bodies with acids, carnivorous plants are deceptively beautiful and totally fascinating to watch. Though some botanists once thought that carnivorous plants caught insects purely by accident, we now know that they evolved a taste for flesh often out of necessity, growing in places with nutrient-poor soil. These 7 types of carnivorous plants stand out for their unusual trapping mechanisms or bizarre eating habits, like one that happily consumes the droppings of small animals.
Mouse-Eating Pitcher Plants
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Jug-like plants half-full of rainwater, acids and enzymes, pitcher plants secrete nectar along their rim to lure in prey – typically insects and the occasional amphibian. But sometimes, they have an appetite for food of a larger and meatier variety. A newly-discovered species named Nepenthes attenboroughii, named after the British naturalist and television host David Attenborough, has been known to eat not just little mice but also larger rats. Their pitchers can be as large as a football and are often found to contain giant centipedes and spiders up to four inches long.
The Beautiful and Deadly Sundew
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Covered in dewdrops that sparkle in the sun, Drosera – commonly known as sundews – are beautiful ornamental plants. They’re also deadly, attracting insects with that ‘dew’ on the tips of their tentacles and then trapping them with the sticky mucilage, releasing enzymes to digest them. It can take up to fifteen minutes for the insect to die. The nutrient ‘soup’ that is left behind by the dissolved insect is then absorbed into the leaves of the plant. All species of sundew are able to move their tentacles , bending in toward the center of the leaf to bring the insect into contact with as many glands as possible.
Pitcher Plant Eats Shrew Poo
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The Giant Montane Pitcher plant, Nepenthes rajah, is the largest meat-eating plant in the world. It’s big enough to trap rats – though it doesn’t do it very often. But there’s another taste it prefers to that of meat: poop. Specifically, the waste of the tree shrew.
When there aren’t enough bugs around, Nepenthes rajah is perfectly happy serving as a toilet for the tree shrew. It uses nectar to lure the shrews close and then collects their waste in its giant pitcher. Scientists believe that the plant’s pitcher has evolved to this perfect tree shrew toilet size specifically for the development of this strange symbiotic relationship.
Butterworts: The Flypaper Plant
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Members of the genus Pinguicula have a special ability: trapping insects on the surface of their leaves just like flypaper, liquefying their prey and then absorbing it. Commonly known as ‘butterworts’, these plants form pretty stemless rosettes, sometimes growing a single blossom on a long stem. Many can cycle between being carnivorous and non-carnivorous depending on the season. These plants have specialized glands scattered across the surface of their succulent leaves that produce visible wet droplets, which draw in bugs like mosquitoes that are in search of water. For the unfortunate bug who chooses to land upon this little plant, struggling is not just futile, but counterproductive – it causes the insect’s body to come into contact with more sticky glands which trap it even further. Like the poo-eating pitcher plant, butterworts have learned to take what they can get: they also digest pollen that lands on their leaves.
Bladderworts: Deceptively Innocent
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They look like ordinary aquatic plants, and even have lovely little yellow flowers that sprout forth above the surface of the water. But Utricularia – also known as bladderworts or bladder traps – have extremely sophisticated traps that can even pull in slippery, wriggly prey like tadpoles. Along its long stems, generally submerged in pond water or lying in damp boggy soil, bladderworts have little pouch-like traps which, when set, are under negative pressure relative to their environment. When their ‘trapdoor’ is triggered by potential prey, the water surrounding the trap is sucked in, and when full of water, the traps ‘close’. This trapping mechanism makes it possible to catch larger prey, slowly sucking in a tadpole by its tail and ingesting it bit by bit. Mosquito larvae, nematodes and water fleas are also common prey. Bladderworts grow all over the world in virtually any wet environment, and even sometimes grow in the damp bark on trees in South American rainforests.
The Cobra Lily
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Typically found in streams or bogs fed by cold mountain water, the Cobra Lily (Darlingtonia californica) – also known as the California Pitcher Plant and the Cobra Plant – is a rare find, and difficult to cultivate. Its tubular leaves are arranged in such a way that from certain angles, the plant resembles a cobra about to strike, tongue and all. Unlike other pitcher plants, the Cobra Lily doesn’t collect rainwater in its pitcher. It actually regulates the amount of water by pulling water up out of the soil through its roots. Once an insect is lured inside, lubricating secretions and downward-pointing hairs prevent them from escaping, and translucent ‘exits’ that aren’t actually exits at all seem to taunt them in their final moments. Once the insect gets tired of trying to escape, it falls down into the water and drowns.
The Venus Flytrap
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The star of the show – the carnivorous plant with the most dramatic meat-eating reflexes – is, of course, the Venus Flytrap. Beetles, spiders, ants and grasshoppers make up the majority of the Venus Flytrap’s prey; interestingly, a number of small holes on the plant’s surface allow small flying insects to escape because the nutrients they contain are not worth the energy expended in trapping them. When open, the trap’s lobes are convex, luring insects with juicy-looking pink flesh. When trigger hairs on the surface are stimulated, the trap clamps shut, forming a concave cavity, and as the insect or spider struggles, the lobes press together even tighter, sealing hermetically and forming a ‘stomach’ to digest the food. Venus flytraps have occasionally been known to eat larger prey such as frogs.