The five: Car­niv­o­rous plants

Flora with a hunger for flesh – and the in­trigu­ing and elab­o­rate ways in which they get hold of it

The Observer - The New Review - - Agenda - Kil­lian Fox

Sci­en­tists at the Uni­ver­sity of Freiburg in Ger­many have for the first time char­ac­terised the snap­ping move­ment of this rare aquatic car­niv­o­rous plant, found in wet­lands around the world. Al­drovanda vesicu­losa snaps its “trap” shut 10 times faster than the much larger Venus fly­trap, us­ing a com­bi­na­tion of hy­draulics and the re­lease of pre­stress to cap­ture water fleas and pos­si­bly even tad­poles and small fish.

Cobra lily

An ex­am­ple of a pit­fall trap, or pitcher plant, this dis­tinc­tive species, na­tive to north­ern Cal­i­for­nia and Ore­gon – and re­sem­bling a strik­ing cobra – traps in­sects in its tubu­lar leaves, which can grow to nearly a me­tre in height. The prey is dis­tracted by false ex­its – the real one is con­cealed – un­til it tires and falls into fluid at the bot­tom of the pitcher, where it is di­gested with the help of bac­te­ria.


In the man­ner of fly­pa­per, th­ese di­verse car­niv­o­rous plants, with nearly 200 species distributed across every con­ti­nent ex­cept Antarc­tica, use sweet, sticky mu­cilage to lure and cap­ture their prey. Rather than pro­vide en­ergy, the in­sects are used to sup­ple­ment nu­tri­ents lack­ing in poor soil con­di­tions. Trapped prey are en­gulfed in a web of the sticky glands and di­gested by en­zymes.


Mos­quito lar­vae, aquatic worms and tad­poles are among the vic­tims of this genus, con­tain­ing some 220 species of plants found in lakes, streams and wa­ter­logged soils around the world. When prey brushes against trig­ger hairs, a trap­door is ac­ti­vated and the prey is sucked into a hol­low bladder, where­upon the door closes again – all within a few thou­sandths of a sec­ond.

Corkscrew plant

Easy to en­ter but dif­fi­cult to es­cape, due to spi­ralling arms with in­ward-point­ing hairs, th­ese plants of the genus Gen­lisea, found in Africa and South and Cen­tral Amer­ica, are ex­am­ples of so-called lob­ster-pot traps. The traps are un­der­ground and they draw the prey – usu­ally minute mi­cro­fauna – upwards into the body of the plant. Car­nivory in corkscrew plants wasn’t proven un­til 1998.


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