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Plants come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and apparently, even diets. The thought of having flesh-eating plants might sound absurd or myth-like, but the diversity of nature is so vast it’s not so hard to believe that it also comprises a wonder of this sort. The fascinating study of carnivorous plants was first tackled by the famous Charles Darwin, who had written a book about them in 1875, titled “Insectivorous Plants”. As the title suggests, these plants are more ‘insectivorous’ rather than flesh-eating, but carnivorous none the less. They grow in soil that normally lacks nutrients, but they make up for this by feeding on insects and arthropods, including flies, spiders, bees, slugs, and sometimes even larger animals like frogs and mice.
Of course, for the plant kingdom, it is an exception that plants feed on living things, so these special species had to develop particular characteristics and mechanisms that allow them to do this. There are in fact five basic trapping mechanisms found in these plants: Pitfall traps, fly paper traps, snap traps, bladder traps and lobster pot traps. Have a read through some of the most exceptional plants on the planet and watch each one in action as they carefully trap their prey.
Drosera (aka sundews) is one of the widest genera of carnivorous plants because of its 194 different variations, spread over all the continents, except for Antarctica. It consists of prostrate or upright rosettes, which can measure from 1cm to 1m in height. Each one produces movable glandular tentacles, giving this plant its characteristic feature, and they are topped with a sweet and sticky fluid, to attract and catch insects. When an insect lands, the tentacles move towards it in order to trap it and eventually, small sessile glands digest it, absorbing all the nutrients required for the plant’s growth.
Indigenous to the Eastern Seaboard, Texas, the Great Lakes and southeastern Canada, Sarracenia (aka North American pitcher plant) is one of the carnivorous plants that uses the pitfall trap mechanism. Its leaves are funnel-shaped, with a hood-like structure over the opening to shelter the pit of digestive juices from rain water. The color and smell of the plant attracts insects, and the nectar it produces lures them over to it, eventually slipping into the trap.
Also known as bladderworts, Utricularia grows in fresh water and wet soil as terrestrial or aquatic species, on every continent except Antarctica. There are about 220 species of this plant and it is the only carnivorous plant that makes use of the genius bladder trap mechanism. Its traps only measure between 0.2mm and 1.2cm, and are aimed for small prey such as protozoa, water fleas, and even small tadpoles. They have a “trapdoor” surrounded by trigger hairs, which, when trapped, the door is opened, the prey is sucked from the water and the door closes back up, in a matter of 10 thousands of a second. You can observe this process happening in the video above.
4. Darlingtonia Californica
Darlintonia Californica (aka California Pitcher plant or Cobra Lilly) is unlike most pitcher plants, a user of the lobster pot trap mechanism. Native to Northern California and Oregon, this charming cobra-shaped plant can be found in bogs and seeps with cold running water. It consists of a hollow, balloon-like structure with an opening at its bottom, inviting visitors inside, with two pointed leaves extending outwards from it, as though fangs. Once inside, insects get confused by the large light speckles that shine through the plant and are tricked by the inward-growing hairs, which they follow down deeper, eventually reaching a trap.
Found throughout North and South America, Europe and Asia in 80 different species, Pinguicula, or butterworts, are a group of carnivorous plants that use sticky glandular leaves to catch and digest insects. The leaves, usually bright green or pinkish in color, contain a penduncular gland that consists of secretory cells on top of a single stalk cell, and produce a mucilaginous secretion that forms visible droplets on the leaf, acting like flypaper. Over the leaf there are also sessile glands, which release digestive enzymes. All these attract the insect to the plant, and it ends up being digested for nutrients.
Nepenthes are tropical carnivorous pitcher plants, nicknamed “monkey cups”, because of the fact that monkeys have often been observed drinking rain water from them due to their hollow shape. There are 130 different species that are spread around parts of Asia, Africa and Australia. Many of them grow to 15m, with a shallow root system, sword-like leaves and tendrils. The plant consists of a cup-shaped pitcher with digestive fluid. The opening to this “cup” invites insects (sometimes even rats) to land on it and eventually fall in the fluid and drown, while the lower part has glands that absorb and distribute nutrients.
7. Dionaea Muscipula
More commonly known as the Venus flytrap, Dionaea muscipula is probably the most spectacular of all carnivorous plants, as well as the most well-known. Its snap trap mechanism is perhaps the most animal-like plant feature, with quick movements that are almost bizarre when seen being done by a plant. The leaf blade of the Venus flytrap consists of a pair of red terminal lobes, the edges of which secrete mucilage. The midrib of the leaf separates the two lobes, which exhibit rapid plant movement by snapping shut when the sensory hair on the surface of the lobes are stimulated by visiting insects, later becoming poor victims of their curiosity.
If you’ve ever tried swatting a fly and know how fast it can fly away, try to imagine the speed at which this plant has to snap. It is said that the lobes can snap shut in just 0.1 seconds to make it possible for the plant to catch the prey, which is trapped inside the leaf with the thorn-like edges fused together and sealed for digestion, leaving no chance for the captive to escape.