The wild world of flesh-eating plants by Kenny Coogan (TED ed). Little do they know it, but these six creatures are each about to experience a very unusual death. One-by-one, they will fall prey to the remarkable, predatory antics of… a carnivorous plant.
Around the world there are more than 600 plant species that supplement a regular diet of sunlight, water, and soil with insects, microbes, or even frogs and rats.
Scientists believe that carnivory in plants evolved separately at least six times on our planet, suggesting that this flesh-munching adaptation holds a major benefit for plants.
Carnivorous plants tend to grow in places with highly acidic soil, which is poor in crucial nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. In these hostile conditions, plants that are able to lure, trap, and digest prey have an advantage over those that rely on soil for their nutrients.
Take this inhospitable bog, where pitcher plants reign supreme. Drawn to the pitcher’s vivid colors and alluring scent, the fly closes in and slurps its nectar. But this pitcher species has an ingredient called conine in its nectar, a powerful narcotic to insects.
As the conine takes effect, the fly grows sluggish, stumbles, and falls down the funnel into a pool of liquid at the base, where he drowns. Enzymes and bacteria in the liquid slowly break his body down into microscopic particles the pitcher plant can consume through its leaves.
Occasionally, larger prey also tumbles into the fatal funnel of the pitcher plant. The second victim faces off with the sticky sundew plant. The sundew’s tiny leaves are equipped with a viscous secretion called mucilage. The ant is swiftly trapped in this goo.
As she struggles, enzymes begin to digest her body. Special tentacles sense her movement and curl around her, clenching her in their suffocating grip. Once she asphyxiates, which can happen in under an hour, the tentacles unfurl again to snare their next victim. Two down, four to go.
The next target meets his end underground, in the coils of the corkscrew plant. He enters the roots through a tiny slit in search of food. But inside, he quickly loses his way through the tangled labyrinth.
A forest of curved hairs prevents his escape, guiding him into a central chamber with flesh-digesting enzymes and deadly low levels of oxygen. In the murky depths of a nearby pond, a tadpole unwittingly swims into the path of the bladderwort, the speediest of all carnivorous plants.
She treads on the bladderwort’s trigger, and in milliseconds, a trapdoor swings open and sucks her in. Trapped half in and half out, she struggles to free herself while the part of her body inside the plant gets digested.
Over the next few hours, her writhing sets the trap off repeatedly, each time bringing her deeper into the plant to be digested alive bit by bit. Meanwhile, this beetle is bewitched by sweet-smelling nectar. The scent draws him closer and closer until he lands on the leaves of the world’s most infamous carnivorous plant.
His landing triggers tiny hairs on the surface of the leaves, and the jaws of the venus fly trap snap shut around him. The spikes interlock to seal his fate. Once closed, the leaves act like an external stomach that digests the beetle’s soft tissues.
When they open again a few days later, only the dry husk of his exoskeleton remains. The mayfly is the last creature standing. As she approaches the butterwort plant, she heads for the flowers that wave high above the plant’s globs of adhesive goo.
She alights on the petals, drinks the nectar, and takes off unscathed. These long flower stalks keep certain insects away from the carnivore’s traps— a way of separating pollinators from food. Off the mayfly buzzes to live a long and fruitful life– oh.
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Credit: Kenny Coogan – TED ed