How can you tell if a plant is carnivorous? Feed it!

A Venus flytrap closes on an unfortunate spider. Photo by cheesy42.

ResearchBlogging.orgPlants 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.

Sticky purple geranium can trap insects on its sticky leaves, and seems to get some nutrition out of them. Photo by jby.

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.

Water collected in the leaves of a teasel plant forms a death trap for insects, and a source of nitrogen for the plant. Photo by HermannFalkner/sokol.

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.

Fuller’s teasel relies on insects for pollination—but does it also rely on them for nutrition? Photo by gynti_46.


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


Bat-eating tits!

ResearchBlogging.orgLike pretty much anyone else writing about this, I’m in it for the headline. Well, maybe 30% for the headline — this is also just freaky natural history. A paper in Biology Letters reports that great tits (Parus major — basically big chickadees) will hunt and eat hibernating bats [$-a] if they can’t find other food sources.

The paper reports on ten years of recorded bat-eating by a population of great tits in Hungary, capped by two years of systematic observations and a couple simple experiments. Are the tits hunting bats because other food is scarce? The authors put out birdseed and bacon near the bat cave, and observed that the birds killed many fewer bats. Do the tits use audio cues to find their prey? The authors played a tape recording of bats calling, and watched as the birds oriented to the sound and approached the speaker. There are also a number of grisly photos of tit-killed bats.

This is really the kind of work that attracts most field biologists to science in the first place — a wild, interesting observation that provides an excuse to do some really unusual (and thorough) birdwatching. More complicated science will follow, I hope, like an estimate of the selective advantage this new food source provides to the birds. But it all starts with an incredible story.

You might want to count your fingers after hand-feeding a great tit. Photo by joyrex.


Estok, P., Zsebok, S., & Siemers, B. (2009). Great tits search for, capture, kill and eat hibernating bats Biology Letters DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2009.0611