A Carnivorous Plant Has Been Hiding in Plain Sight in North America

Unbeknownst to science, a plant that was unassumingly found in the boglands of North America and Canada has been eating and trapping insects. Researchers have discovered that Triantha occidentalis, the 12th independent evolution of carnivorythe eating of animal flesh in the plant kingdom, is now known.AdvertisementDifferent plant families developed a preference for meat, and T. occidentalis (in the Alismatales) now joins the list of 630 species that eat animals. This is usually because the soils in their area are poor in nutrients, especially nitrogen and phosphorous. These nutrients are essential for photosynthesis. The researchers discovered that T. occidentalis might be more than what it seems.Although T. occidentalis is found in close proximity to urban centers, it has not been officially classified as carnivorous. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin in Wisconsin and the University of British Columbia, Canada determined that T. occidentalis traps insects on its stems using specialized sticky hairs that can't catch larger, more pollinating insects. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences publishes the new findings.Only one case of carnivory was discovered in the last two decades. Qianshi Lin, a botanist from the University of British Columbia, and the lead author of the new study, stated in an email that people believed sticky hairs on T. occidentalis were defense mechanisms and did not link them to carnivory.Lins team used dead fruit flies that had been fed on nitrogen to test the plant's carnivorous nature. The sticky hairs of these flies would not be able to withstand the light insects. Lins team believed that if the same nitrogen isotope was found in the plants tissues, it could be reasonable to conclude that the plant had eaten it from insects. The team used models by Tom Givnish (a botanist at University of Wisconsin-Madison), to determine that 64% of the plant's nitrogen intake came from insects. This is comparable to other carnivorous plants.AdvertisementT. occidentalis hairs are visible to the naked eye. However, they only look like tiny red granules on the plant's green stem. They have a delicate balance between stickiness and sensitivity that allows them to catch prey while not sacrificing other vital survival tasks. Givnish, a UW spokesperson, stated that Triantha occidentalis' glandular hairs can trap small insects and not sticky enough to capture larger bees and butterflies.Lin explained in an email that the plant eats the flies through the expulsion of a digestive enzyme from its stem. The plant absorbs the nutrients from the prey directly. It also produces an enzyme called "phosphatase", which is responsible for breaking down nutrients that are phosphorous. This is an essential element in plant growth.AdvertisementYou may need to keep your pet flies under control when you're out exploring bogs along West Coast.Learn more: What are Venus Flytraps doing with Magnetic Fields?