Plants that eat animals offend our trophic sensibilities. Those of us who can move independently are supposed to eat those of us who can make sugar from sunlight—that’s just the way the food chain works, right?
Well, not really. From a certain perspective, plants prey on animals all the time, using the sneaky strategy of just waiting us out—when we animals stop moving for good, we’re fertilizer. And there are quite a few plants that aren’t so patient. Venus flytraps, sundews, and pitcher plants have been recognized as carnivores since before Charles Darwin devoted a book to their ecology and anatomy. They all have structures—fly-trapping leaves, or sticky hairs, or deep pitfalls full of water—that are uniquely good at catching wayward insects. All of them also grow in particularly nutrient-poor soils, such as bogs, where the nitrogen from trapped insects makes a big difference.
The vast majority of plants lack either adaptations for trapping, or the same kind of need for nitrogen—they either don’t grow where they can’t get the stuff, or they hire symbiotic bacteria to help fix it. Yet there is a third category of plants, which are not exactly carnivorous, but which might just “eat” the occasional stray fly anyway. Many plants have hairy surfaces that can catch insects, or leaf structures that trap water and create pitfalls—and some of these plants can take advantage of the critters caught in these proto-traps.
One such plant is the sticky purple geranium (Geranium viscosissimum), which grows on dry Palouse hillsides around my current hometown of Moscow, Idaho. As its name implies, sticky purple geranium is sticky—its leaves are velvety with tiny glandular hairs, which leave a gummy residue on your hands if you brush against them. These hairs make it difficult for small insect herbivores to get to the leaves—but they also trap some of those insects.
Back in 1999, a biologist in my department at the University of Idaho, George Spomer (who left the department before my arrival), showed that sticky purple geranium leaves would digest a protein film pressed against them, somewhat like the leaves of a sundew. When Spomer placed protein labeled with carbon-14 on geranium leaves, he found elevated levels of carbon-14 elsewhere in the plant, suggesting that geranium leaves could absorb protein as well as digest it [$a].
Spomer demonstrated that the plants he studied could digest and absorb insects caught on their leaves, but his data can’t tell us whether that ability is of any particular use to a geranium growing in a natural population—whether, that is, geraniums actually need the nutrients they might get from trapped insects. A more recent study of another possibly carnivorous plant gets closer to answering that question.
The plant in this second study is fuller’s teasel, Dipsacus fullonum, a widespread European wildflower that has been introduced into North America. The leaves of many teasel plants form catchments (pictured above) that can collect water and form a makeshift pitfall, which catches and drowns small insects. It has been speculated that, like sticky purple geranium, fuller’s teasel can absorb nutrients from these catchments full of rotting insect corpses. British biologists Peter Shaw and Kyle Shackleton set out to test this hypothesis not by tracking protein from trapped insects, but by determining whether teasel plants benefit from the trapping.
To do this, Shaw and Shackleton experimentally manipulated the number of insects trapped in the catchments formed by teasel plants’ leaves. In one treatment, they watched experimental plants and removed insects as soon as they were trapped; in the other, they “fed” the experimental plants an extra bluebottle maggot at set intervals. They compared both treatments to a group of plants that were left un-manipulated as a control. The “fed” plants didn’t necessarily grow bigger or produce more seeds, but they did produce more seeds as a proportion of their total biomass. That is, fuller’s teasel plants that trap more insects can devote more of their resources to making seeds.
Does this make fuller’s teasel carnivorous? Maybe, but probably not in the same sense that a Venus flytrap is. Teasels tend to grow in better soil than carnivorous plants do in general—they like open fields and stream banks, in my experience. Furthermore, we don’t have any evidence that teasels actively attract insects, as most carnivorous plants do. On balance, it seems far more likely that what Shaw and Shackleton found is not carnivory as we usually know it, but plants making sure that a handy source of nitrogen doesn’t go to waste.
Darwin, C. (1875.) Insectivorous plants. Google Books link.
Shaw, P., & Shackleton, K. (2011). Carnivory in the teasel Dipsacus fullonum — The effect of experimental feeding on growth and seed set. PLoS ONE, 6 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0017935
Spomer, G. (1999). Evidence of protocarnivorous capabilities in Geranium viscosissimum and Potentilla arguta and other sticky plants. Int. J. Plant Sci., 160 (1), 98-101 DOI: 10.1086/314109