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Meat-eating pitcher plants raise deathtraps to an art

Green carnivores hunt with scum and sweets

By
7:00am, January 6, 2017
California pitcher plant

FANCY FRILLS  Scientists thought the red-veined forked frill that grows at the mouth of a California pitcher plant’s water trap was an insect lure, but now they’re not so sure.  

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Tricking some bug into drowning takes finesse, especially for a hungry meat eater with no brain, eyes or moving parts. Yet California pitcher plants are very good at it.

Growing where deposits of the mineral serpentine would kill most other plants, Darlingtonia californica survives in low-nutrient soil by being “very meat dependent,” says David Armitage of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. Leaves he has tested get up to 95 percent of their nitrogen from wasps, beetles, ants or other insects that become trapped inside the snake-curved hollow leaves.

The leaves don’t collect rainwater because a green dome covers the top. Instead, they suck moisture up through the roots and (somehow) release it into the hollow trap. “People have been doing weird experiments where they feed [a plant] meat and milk and other things to try to trigger it to release water,” Armitage says. Experiments tempting the green carnivore with cheese, beef broth, egg whites and so on suggest there’s some sort of chemical cue.

However the water enters the leaf pool, it starts out clear. As insects drown, the liquid darkens to a murky brown or red and “smells just horrible,” he says. The soupiness comes from bacteria, which help doom prey by lowering the surface tension of the drowning pool, Armitage reports in the November Biology Letters. Ants or other small insects sink below the surface immediately instead of floating at the top.

pitcher plant insides

But first, pitchers lure victims to the pool by repurposing an old plant ploy: free nectar. It’s “highly nitrogen-rich and full of sugars, so it’s delicious — I’ve tasted it,” Armitage says. Pitcher plants sprout blooms, but the trap nectar doesn’t come from the drooping flowers. A roll of tissue near the pitcher mouth oozes the treat.

That nectar-heavy roll curves onto what’s called the fishtail appendage. Mature plants
(2 years or older) grow this forked tissue like a moustache at the pitcher mouth. Biologists for more than a century have presumed that this big, red-veined, lickable prong worked as an insect lure. Armitage, however, tested the idea and says it may be wrong.

Clipping fishtails off individual leaves, or even off all the leaves in a small patch, did nothing to shrink the catch compared with fully mustachioed leaves, he reported in the American Journal of Botany in April 2016. The only thing fishtails lure, for the time being at least, are puzzled botanists.

Citations

D. W. Armitage.  The cobra’s tongue: Rethinking the function of the “fishtail appendage” on the pitcher plant Darlingtonia californica. American Journal of Botany. Vol. 103, April 2016, p. 780.

D.W. Armitage. Bacteria facilitate prey retention in the pitcher plant Darlingtonia californica. Biology Letters. Vol. 12, November 23, 2016. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2016.0577.

Further Reading

S. Schwartz. Raindrops help pitcher plants trap dinner. Science News Online. October 5, 2015.

S. Milius. Fairly bad pitcher traps triumph in the end. Science News. Vol. 187, February 21, 2015, p. 4.

N. Drake. Fruit of the loo. Science News. Vol. 180, September 10, 2011, p. 15.

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