Feed Me Seymour!

If you are familiar with the musical “Little Shop of Horrors” you know that famous scene where a giant man eating plant named Audrey II convinces the main character to feed it human flesh with a witty song and dance. Now, I’m not suggesting giant man eating plants like Audrey II exist, but carnivorous plants actually do!

So, how do they differ from regular plants? Well, it’s pretty simple, they eat FLESH. They typically only digest insects, but if the plant is large enough something as large as a bird could fall in [1], so don’t worry about falling in.

There are three anatomical features that place plants in the carnivorous category:

  1. the ability to attract the prey
  2. the capability to trap and kill prey and,
  3. methods of digesting prey and prey nutrients [2].

But all a plant is supposed to need is soil, sun water and oxygen, right? Well, when it comes to carnivorous plants the answer actually lies in the soil. Most plants need three main nutrients, Nitrogen (N), Phosphorous (P) and Potassium (K) in order to grow [3]. However, most carnivorous plants inhabit tropical areas where the soil is too acidic and doesn’t offer enough nutrients, limiting growth. Often it’s because the soil is being leached out by excessive rain [4]. By eating insects, the carnivorous plant is able acquire nutrients like Nitrogen from the insect rather than the soil.

So how does an immobile plant manage to catch bugs? Different carnivorous plants have different methods. In the case of the pitcher plant, the plant releases attractive scents to bring insects  to the waxy lip at the top of the plant.  Once the insect falls in, little hairs called growing in a downward direction, so when an insect crawls in past the waxy lip, it has difficulty climbing out. As the insect continues the futile struggle and keeps falling downward, the tube narrows making it more difficult to climb out. Once the insect is at the bottom of the plant, there are digestive glands which produce a well of enzymes that break down the insect slowly [2]. Delish! Just think of Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole, but with a nightmarish ending.

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While hiking the hills of Kabayan in the North Luzon, Philippines, I came across the pitcher plant depicted in the pictures above. To the best of my abilities, I identified it as Nepenthes alata also known by its common name as the Banaue highland Pitcher plant. This form is abundant in the highlands of the Cordillera Mountain range in Northern Luzon, Philippines. There are pure green forms of the pitcher plant and forms that are striped with red [5].

This specific species of pitcher plant is not endangered and is actually quite common in the Northern Luzon [6]. However, its relative Nepthenes attenboroughiii is critically endangered because of being poached and sold in Taiwanese and Japanese markets [7]. Though we can’t feed these plants like we would Seymour, we can still raise awareness about their remarkable evolutionary features and how they contribute to plant diversity.

*If you are a plant expert and have different insights into the species identification of this pitcher plant, please feel free to contact me. Science is about always improving and finding clearer answers!

Works Cited:

[1] The Gale Group incorporated. (2001). Carnivorous Plants. Retrieved from:  http://www.encyclopedia.com/plants-and-animals/plants/plants/carnivorous-plants

[2] Chase M. W., Christenhusz M. J. M., Sanders D., & Fay M. F., (2009). Murderous Plants: Victorian gothic, Darwin and modern insights into vegetable carnivory. J. of Bot. Linn. Socc, 161, 329-356.

[3] Mattson J., (1980), Herbivory in Relation to Plant Nitrogen content. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 11, 119-161.

[4] Tukey H. B., (1970). The leaching of substances from plants. Annual review of plant physiology, 21(1), 305-324.

[5] Highland Pitcher Plants on the genus Nepenthes. Retrieved from: http://pitcher-plants.com/nephi.htm

[6] Clarke C., Cantley R., Nerz J., Rischer H. & Witsuba A. (2000).  Nepenthes alata. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2000: e.T39637A10253449. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2000.RLTS.T39637A10253449.enDownloaded on 12 November 2016.

[7] Robinson A.S. & Madulid D.A. (2012).  Nepenthes attenboroughii. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2012: e.T159126A790335. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2012-1.RLTS.T159126A790335.enDownloaded on 12 November 2016.

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