Those Carnivorous Pitcher Plants!

Feb 22, 2017 By Roma B, Young Editor
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Imagine this: you are a fly buzzing around a kitchen. On the window sill, you see a green plant. It catches your attention, and the sweet smell lures you closer. Hungry, you reach for the sweet liquid, but with a chomp, you are eaten by the plant!

Does this scenario seem impossible to you? Well, such plants do exist, and you have just become a victim of the pitcher plant.

What are these fascinating pitcher plants and how did they develop their unique meat-eating habit? Lets find out.

Trapping Its Prey

Pitcher plants are carnivorous plants that have a pitfall trap, or a prey-trapping mouth which leads to a giant pitcher filled with digestive fluid.

An insect that is lured by the plant's sweet nectar will suddenly find itself trapped inside the pitcher. The walls of the pitcher plant are too slippery for the insect to escape. And meanwhile, the digestive juices inside the pitcher start breaking up the insect's body. Pretty gruesome but cool, isn't it!

The term pitcher plant actually includes several different species of plants that all share the pitcher-shaped traps. The two major groups are the Nepenthaceae (Old World) and Sarraceniaceae (New World). The Old World pitcher plants live high up on trees and their  wax-coated trap is formed from the folding of its leaves in the shape of a cup. The New World pitcher plants grow on the ground and their entire leaf extends up to form the leaf and pitcher. All families of pitcher plants fall under one of three categories: Australian, American, and Asian varieties.

Developing A Taste For Meat?

How did pitcher plants become carnivorous? It has to do with evolution. In fact, even though the American, Australian, and Asian pitcher plants are different, they have striking similarities. Pitcher plants live in areas that don't have nutrient-rich soil, and don't receive much sunlight to help the plants make their own food. 

Scientists examined the genes involved in the carnivorous practices of these plants. They found that common plant enzymes that were once used by plants for self-defense or immunity, changed over time into digestive enzymes. One such enzyme is chitinase, which can break down the "chitin" that makes up the outer bodies of insects.

According to scientists, this is an example of "convergent evolution," where species that develop far from each other, end up looking and behaving similarly. This is because of the similar challenges they face in their environments. 

What other carnivorous plants are out there? Read our earlier article HERE.