Most people, with the possible exception of sadistic dentists and floral shop owners, enjoy watching Venus flytraps trap and eat flies and other insects. Although it’s the only meat-eating plant most people know of, there are actually 11 known groups of plants that attract, trap, and kill prey. Make that 12. Botanists at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the University of British Columbia in Canada recently made the surprise discovery that a small flowering plant growing in bogs along the west coast of North America from Alaska to California and inland to Montana have a taste for bugs that land on its pollen-filled buds. Wait a minute … isn’t that like biting the bug that feeds you?
“What’s particularly unique about this carnivorous plant is that it traps insects near its insect-pollinated flowers. On the surface, this seems like a conflict between carnivory and pollination because you don’t want to kill the insects that are helping you reproduce.”
Dr. Qianshi Lin, lead author of the research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and co-author Dr. Tom Givnish explain in a UBC Press release how Triantha occidentalis manages to avoid eating insects trying to pollinate it — its glandular hairs are not very sticky and can only trap midges and other small insects, while bigger bees and butterflies can easily pull away after landing and pollinating. Triantha is the first new carnivorous plant to be identified by botanists in 20 years. While they have long been known to grow in nutrient-poor, boggy areas on the west coast of North America, little was known how they manage to survive. However, previous research on the plants found that they lacked a gene that is also missing in carnivorous plants.
Dr. Lin, then a doctoral student, decided to see if the Triantha occidentalis was more than a boggy vegan. He placed fruit flies labelled with nitrogen-15 isotopes on a flowering stem and then waited. Once the flies were gone, he measured changes in nitrogen uptake by the plant and noticed a significant increase. Those results were the same as in known carnivorous plants given the same nitro fruit flies. Digging deeper into the flowers, he found that the sticky hairs of the Triantha produced the digestive enzyme phosphatase used by carnivorous plants to obtain phosphorous from insects. All that added up to a new candidate for a Broadway musical set in a bog.
“Given the existence of Triantha in close proximity to major urban centers on the Pacific coast, our study serves as a vivid reminder that other cryptic carnivores may yet remain to be discovered.”
The study concludes that a Triantha Audrey III in “Little Bog of Horrors” would have plenty to eat since they live near major cities up and down the West Coast of the U.S and Canada. Unfortunately, they have to stay in the bogs – Triantha won’t survive in pots.
Could Triantha occidentalis, like Audrey II, actually be a visitor from outer space? Someone need to convince Dr. Lin to put his ear close enough to a bog to listen for this:
“I’m just a mean green mother from outer space and I’m bad!”