It's easy to believe that nature has an innate simplicity, but these plants will prove otherwise.
Big things eat smaller things, smaller things eat even smaller things, eat even smaller things... well, you get the point. And at the very end of the chain are plants that seem to need only water and sunlight to survive.
But nature is never easy. For among all the peaceful, seemingly harmless foliage are a slew of carnivorous specimens that not only eat flesh (to obtain much-needed nutrients not found in the soil), but also employ devious, innovative, and even predatory means, to catch their prey.
Perhaps the most famous of the carnivorous plants, this iconic bug-eating member of the sundew family is a lot smarter than you might imagine.1The leaf features a jaw-like hinge section surrounded by spiky "teeth" on the edge, along with a row of highly sensitive hairs. When an insect lands and comes into contact with these hairs, the trap snaps shut. The writhing motion of the captured prey stimulates enzymes that digest the insect over several days.2The plant is so sophisticated that it can even recognize stimuli that are not prey, such as raindrops.3
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Yellow pitcher plant
Known as pitcher plants because of their shape, the carnivore family uses modified leaves that form a tube-like structure to attract insects, then capture and digest them. Found in the southern United States, yellow pitcher plant is a particularly striking example of the species, which can grow to a meter in height.4Insects are attracted to their bright color as well as a nectar that also contains a poison that incapacitates them. The waxy walls of the tube cause insects to slide to the bottom, where digestive fluids will soon get rid of them.5
This member of the carnivorous pitcher plant group is commonly known as the "monkey cup" because primates have been observed drinking from the leaves when thirsty. Found on Borneo, Nepenthes Rajah is one of the largest carnivorous plants on earth. This deadly plant can grow up to six meters long and absorb up to 3 liters of water and two and a half liters of digestive juices.6Its enormous size means its diet isn't exclusive to invertebrates; Frogs, lizards, birds and even rats were lured in, where they were dissolved in acid. It has also developed an unusual, symbiotic relationship with the local mountain shrew. The shrew feeds on the nectar of the plant and then defecates into the pitcher, providing it with much-needed nitrogen.7
Contrasting with the mighty Rajah is the tiny Drosera pulchella, or pygmy sundew, which is found in south-west Australia. Although they are only 15-20mm across, they are still fierce carnivores. They attract prey by releasing a sweet-smelling secretion8by tentacle-like projections at the ends of the leaves. This attracts insects, which quickly get stuck before the tentacles contract and cover them in the slime.9The insect is then slowly digested over several weeks.
Large floating water hose
Bladderworms use a completely different method to capture their prey. Found in ponds, lakes and streams, "trigger" hairs on the surface of its "bladders" (small hollow sacs)10are tripped when prey swims by.11When the bladder opens, water rushes in, bringing the prey with it. This all happens in less than a millisecond - more than 100 times faster than a Venus flytrap.11Found in the southeastern United States, the large, swollen or inflated bladderwort, as its name suggests, is one of the largest, with stems up to two feet long. In fact, its size threatens native plants and insects as this invasive carnivorous plant invades large bodies of water.12
While some carnivores, like the Venus flytrap, look quite intimidating, others tempt their prey with innocence. Found in the Western Cape province of South Africa, this narrow-leaved shrub looks a bit deceptive.13Also known as a flycatcher bush, it has "tentacles" that secrete a sticky resin to catch its prey. But then the plant does not eat the insect. Instead, it waits for a jumping tree beetle called Pameridea roridulae to eat the prey while the plant enjoys the nutrients contained in the droppings the beetle leaves behind.14
Albany pitcher plant
Found in Western Australia, the Albany (also known as the Western Australian pitcher plant) is unique among carnivorous plants. The only species in the genus Cephalotus, it is thought to be an example of convergent evolution, meaning it evolved similar traits to other organisms without being related to them. In fact, the plant is more closely related to cabbage and roses than to other pitcher plants.15 But like them, it has a tub-like leaf - or "jug" - with a lid to keep out rain. The red and white coloring lures insects inside, but sharp, tooth-like spines on the rim prevent them from escaping. They eventually slide to the bottom of the jar, where they are digested in a pool of enzymes.16
Bromeliads are the plant family that includes pineapples as well as some popular, colorful houseplants. But they also have some carnivores in their midst.17There are three carnivorous bromeliads, including Brocchinia reducta, which grows in South America. As with other bromeliads, a rosette of leaves serves as a water reservoir. This flower-like shape is said to attract insects, as is a coating that reflects UV light. And just to be safe, it also gives off an appealing, sweet scent to lure into your dinner. Insects attracted and trapped in it tire and drown before eventually decomposing into a 'nutrient soup'.18
This member of the pitcher plant family gets its name from its striking resemblance to the rearing head of a cobra. A forked leaf complements the snake images as it has a pronounced tongue or fangs. Again, it uses nectar to attract unsuspecting insects, but it also has another devilish trick up its sleeve. Translucent spots on the cap over the leaf tube make prey think this is a way back to safety. But the insect's futile attempts to escape only make it work harder and tire more quickly.19Unlike other predatory plants, the cobra lily produces bacteria — rather than digestive enzymes — to break down prey for ingestion.
Potentially competing with the Nepenthes Rajah for the crown of the world's largest carnivorous plant, Triphyophyllum peltatum grows with a long stem that can be 50 meters long and 10 cm thick.20This incredibly rare species is an absolute curiosity and its carnivorous nature was not recognized until 50 years after its original discovery. Native to tropical West Africa, this sophisticated plant has a complex life cycle.21Before flowering, the plant produces a vine-like leaf with a sticky surface that traps and absorbs insects. ButafterFlowering, it moves away from its predatory habits and evolves into onenot carnivorousclimbing tendril-like plant.
Featured Image© Manassiri | Getty
1. Venus flytrap member of the sundewFamily,2. venus flytrapdigestion,3. venus flytrapStimulation,4. Yellow pitcher plantLocation,5. Yellow pitcher plantdigestion,6. Nepenthes Rajah digestion,7. Nepenthes Rajah and shrewRelationship,8. Drosera PulchellaFragrance,9. Drosera pulchella preycatch,10. Large floating water hose triggerHair,11. Large floating water hosespeed,12. Large floating waterskin invasiveNature,13. Gorgons TaustabLocation,14. Gorgons Dewstick Pameridearoridulae,15. Albany pitcher plantRelationships,16. Albany pitcher plantdigestion,17.BromeliadsFamily,18. Brocchini reduceddigestion,19. Cobra-Liliesdigestion,20. TriphyophyllumSize,21. Triphyophyllum peltatum lifecycle
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