Scientists Discovered That This West Coast Flower is Carnivorous After 142 Years
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This pretty little white flower, which grows in the Pacific Northwest's urban centers, turns out to be a deadly weapon.
Triantha occidentalis (bog-dwelling western false Asphodel) was first described in scientific literature in 1879. Researchers have now discovered that the sweet-looking plant uses its sticky stem to capture and digest insects. They published their study Monday, which they claim is the first carnivorous new plant to be discovered in 20 years.
Sean Graham, a botanist at the University of British Columbia, says that "we had no idea it is carnivorous." "This was not in a tropical area, but right here in Vancouver. This field site could be reached by walking from Vancouver.
Carnivorous plants make up less than one thousand of the many species of plant species. They prefer to live in areas with plenty sun and water but poor soil.
Graham's group was working on a different project on plant genetics when they noticed that the western falsaphodel had a gene deletion that can sometimes be seen in carnivorous species. Researchers began to consider the possibility that the flower had grown in an environment that was home to other insect-eating plants.
Graham says, "And then they had these sticky stems." "So it was almost like, hmm... I wonder if this could indicate that they might be carnivorous."
Qianshi Lin Qianshi Lin toggle caption
Qianshi Lin, a researcher at the University of Toronto Mississauga, gave fruit flies nitrogen-15 to determine if they could take in nutrients from insects. This nitrogen could then be used as a tracker. These flies were then attached to the stems of this plant.
An analysis revealed that the nitrogen from the insects had actually been getting into the plants. Triantha actually got more than half its nitrogen from prey. Lin and his coworkers claim that this is similar to the results seen in other carnivorous plants.
The researchers also discovered that sticky hairs on the stalk of the flower produce a digestive enzyme, which is known to be used in many carnivorous species.
The research team found tiny dead insects on the stems of specimens of this plant that had been preserved in herbariums.
Aaron Ellison, a Harvard University botanist, said that the discovery was the product of "a really nice chain" of scientific thinking.
He notes that all other carnivorous plants have modified leaves.
Ellison says that no one would consider a flower stalk to be the primary mode for carnivory. It's quite surprising.
Carnivorous plants tend to keep their deadly traps away from flowers so that there is no risk of accidentally killing pollinators. In this instance, the stem seems to be able only to capture tiny insects such as midges and not larger butterflies or bees involved in pollination. The flower doesn't only grow in Canada, the researchers noted in their study that it is also found close to "several major metropolitan centers on the Pacific Coast."
Graham is now curious about what other insects are secretly eating. It's not unusual for plants to have sticky stems. These are believed to be used to protect the plant from being eaten by insects.
Graham says, "I suspect" that there may be more carnivorous plants than we think.