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University of Illinois Extension

Carnivorous Plants in the Wild

March 5, 2008

Carnivorous, or meat-eating, plants are incredible and unusual, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

"Colors, sizes, prey, and mode of predatory action of these unique plants vary greatly, and different species can be found all over the world," said Matt Kostelnick. "Many can be found in the United States."

Simply put, a carnivorous plant is one that captures and digests animals, usually insects and other small arthropods. But some can feed on small animals, such as lizards, mice, and even birds.

"Most people think of the Venus Fly Trap when they think of carnivorous plants," he said. "Venus Fly Traps--Dionaea muscipula--are very fast-acting, exciting plants to watch when the leaves snap shut on an unfortunate fly that happens across their path.

"Venus Fly Traps are actually native to wet, boggy areas of North and South Carolina. The plant has trigger-traps that snap shut when small hairs inside the trap are disturbed. Once trapped, much of the insect is broken down and used as needed nutrition by the Venus Fly Trap."

Why do Venus Fly Traps and other carnivorous plants eat small animals?

"Most carnivorous plants grow in wet, boggy areas that tend to be acidic and very low in nutrients for adequate plant growth," he explained. "Carnivorous plants have adapted and overcome the lack of nutrients by developing special features for feeding on insects and other small animals.

"The small insects and other critters provide necessary nutrients like nitrogen that are lacking in the soil. Because of these adaptations, carnivorous plants will grow where most other plants cannot."

However, carnivorous plants include more than the exciting Venus Fly Trap. Other major groups include Pitcher Plants, Sticky Traps (including Sundews and Butterworts), and Bladderworts.

Pitcher Plants come in a plethora of shapes, sizes, colors, and forms, he noted.

"Some Pitcher Plants are rather short and stubby such as the Purple Pitcher--Sarracenia purpurea--which is found along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States and Canada and even in swampy areas of the Great Lakes region," he said. "In fact, the Purple Pitcher is actually the state flower of Newfoundland.

"Inside the pitchers are downward-pointing hairs containing nectar which attracts insects. Insects are captured by slipping and falling off the hairs and into liquid in the bottom of the pitcher. They die by drowning in this liquid. Acids and enzymes then break down the insect into a soup, which is used by the plant for nutrition."

In the southeast portion of the United States, one finds a beautiful, slender pitcher plant often called a Trumpet Pitcher--Sarracenia--because of its long, trumpet-like, tubular pitcher. Its habitat ranges from Virginia to the Carolinas, Florida, and areas west to Louisiana.

"These pitchers can get quite tall, up to three to four feet in height," said Kostelnick. "These very beautiful pitchers, coming in many different colors, use an interesting way to lure and capture their prey. The bright colors and nectar trails attract insects, similar to the way a flower attracts insects. Ultimately, these vibrant colors lead the prey to the death pit.

"Additionally, the insects are intoxicated by plant secretions, making them more vulnerable and leading them to their death down the long, slender pitcher tube. At this point, the insect has no escape and drowns. It is subsequently broken down by the pitcher's juices. Although beautiful, these pitchers are so successful at catching large amounts of insects, they sometimes catch too many and collapse as a result of the heavy weight."

A somewhat scary-looking pitcher plant called the Cobra Lilly--Darlingtonia californica--resembles a coral snake and is native to areas of the West Coast, particularly northern California and Oregon. Darlingtonia State Natural Site near Florence, Oregon, is a state park which features and preserves these rare plants in their native habitat.

"Perhaps the hungriest of the carnivorous plants are Tropical Pitchers--Nepenthes--native to Southeast Asia. These plants hang off tendrils or vines. Some are so large and heavy that they actually rest on the ground and have been known to digest animals as large as a rat," he said. "Other animals that have fallen victim to these large pitchers include mice, lizards, and small birds.

"Pitcher traps on these Tropical Pitchers can get up to the size of one gallon, which is what allows them to trap such large prey. Large prey, however, are the exception. Ants are a much more common victim, attracted by the nectars in the pitcher's release. These pitchers also release intoxicating secretions."

Source: Matthew Kostelnick, Extension Unit Educator, Horticulture, mkosteln@illinois.edu

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