A cute tiny white flower blooms near metropolitan areas in the Pacific Northwest turns out to be deadly.
Triantha occidentalis, also known as the bog-dwelling western false asphodel, was originally reported in the scientific literature in 1879.
But, according to experts, no one knew this sweet-looking plant utilized its sticky stem to trap and devour insects until now. Their study was published Monday, and it's the first new carnivorous plant identified in about 20 years.
A botanist at the University of British Columbia, Sean Graham, explains, "We had no clue it was carnivorous. This was not discovered in some exotic tropical region, but practically on our doorstep in Vancouver; you could literally walk out of Vancouver to this field site."
Carnivorous plants are found in areas with plenty of light and water but low nutrition levels in the soil.
Graham's team was working on a separate plant genetics research when they discovered that the western false asphodel has a genetic deletion similar to that observed in carnivorous plants. The researchers began to consider that this bloom thrived in the same type of habitat as other insect-eating plants.
"Then there are these sticky stems," Graham explains. "So, you know, I was thinking, hmm, I wonder if this might be an indication that this is carnivorous."
Qianshi Lin, currently at the University of Toronto, Mississauga, fed fruit flies nitrogen-15 isotopes. This nitrogen could be used as a tracker to determine if the plants could truly take up nutrients from insects. He then glued these flies on the plant's stems.
After further investigation, it was shown that nitrogen from the deceased insects was really entering the plants. In fact, prey provided more than half of Triantha's nitrogen. Lin and his colleagues write in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which was published online Monday, that this is similar to what they've found in other carnivorous plants.
Furthermore, the researchers discovered that the flower stalk's sticky hairs release a digesting enzyme known to be utilized by many carnivorous plants.
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Finding Small Dead Insects
Small dead insects were found attached to the stems of specimens of this plant kept in herbariums by the study team.
According to Aaron Ellison, a Harvard University botanist who was not part of the research team, the discovery was the product of "a pretty good chain of scientific reasoning."
He points out that all other known carnivorous plants use modified leaves to catch prey.
"No one would consider a flower stem to be the principal mechanism of carnivory," adds Ellison. "Wow, that was unexpected."
Carnivorous plants usually keep their poisonous traps far away from their blooms, ensuring that pollinators are not unintentionally killed. However, it appears that the stem can only catch small insects like midges, not the bigger bees or butterflies that are engaged in pollination. As a result, the flower may be found in "many major urban areas on the Pacific coast," according to the experts who conducted the study.
Graham is left wondering what else is out there covertly consuming insects after this incident. After all, sticky stems aren't uncommon in plants, and they're considered to be employed as a defensive mechanism to keep insects away from the plant.
"I assume there are more carnivorous plants out there than we thought," Graham adds.
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