The Predators of the Plant Kingdom
“Carnivorous plants seem to defy all conventional preconceptions about plants in the way they move, the organs they develop, and the way they sustain themselves.” – Sir David Attenborough, Patron of the IUCN SSC Carnivorous Plant Specialist Group.
Plants are generally thought of as passive, harmless organisms – the “primary producers” at the very bottom of the food chain. One very special group of plants, however, defies this norm by taking on the role of predator, capturing and digesting animals. Carnivorous plants display some of the most fascinating morphological and behavioural adaptations in the plant kingdom. Unfortunately, they are also facing increasing pressure from human activity.
Carnivory in plants is an amazing adaptation to life in nutrient-poor soils. Most plants can only absorb the vital nitrogen and other nutrients they require from the soil and are therefore restricted to environments with fertile soils. By evolving the capability to derive nitrogen from animal prey, carnivorous plants were able to exploit an empty ecological niche: areas with low nutrient concentrations such as bogs and fens.
Carnivorous plants are found on every continent except Antarctica. They are especially numerous in North America, south-eastern Asia, and Australia. There are approximately 750 species with a diverse range of ingenious predatory tactics, from snap traps to slippery pitchers to sticky “flypaper”.
Carnivorous plants are important components of amazingly rich and unique ecosystems. While some unfortunate species (mostly insects) fall prey to these leafy predators, countless others benefit from them and vice-versa. Many pitcher plants, for example, contain resident organisms ranging from bacteria to fly larvae. The tiny residents help break down the plant’s prey, making it easier to digest, and are in turn provided with food and shelter. Even mammals have evolved some fascinating mutualistic relationships with carnivorous plants. Hardwicke’s Woolly Bat (Kerivoula hardwickii) in Borneo, for example, uses the pitcher plant Nepenthes hemsleyana as a living sleeping bag. While roosting in the pitcher, the bat deposits its guano which the plant uses as fertilizer.
Unfortunately, the diverse beauty and unique behaviours of carnivorous plants make them vulnerable to over-collection for the horticultural trade. As demand for rare species is particularly high, poaching represents a major threat. Several species have very localised distributions in fragile habitats and are also threatened by habitat destruction, primarily driven by agriculture and logging and mining operations. As a result, many carnivorous plant populations are in precipitous decline.
To help halt this decline, we are raising funds to complete the assessment of all carnivorous plants for The IUCN Red List. Only about 20% of carnivorous plant species have so far been assessed. With your help, we can assess them all in order to determine the global conservation status of this unique and important group to better inform conservation action and policy decisions.
“Providing accurate and up-to-date IUCN Red List conservation assessments for all carnivorous plants will be an invaluable tool for research scientists and conservationists around the globe.” – Sir David Attenborough.
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