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Carnivorous Plants: Beauty with a Bite!

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how we think
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12-05-24 21:06
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Carnivorous Plants: Beauty with a Bite!
Seunghun Seo
Kyungpook National University High School, Daegu, Korea


Abstract
This essay describes my relationship with carnivorous plants from the moment I first discovered them to the present. Venus Flytraps and Droseras are relatively recent finds (18th C.) and further studies need to be carried out for us to properly understand them and to use them for our own benefits. Along with a brief history, I discuss the challenges facing these beautiful plants.

My eight-year rapport with carnivorous plants began when I came across a book in the library of my elementary school. The book had a picture of a Venus Flytrap on its cover. I was amazed that these bizarre plants, which feed on animals and insects, existed in the world. I felt as if I had found a living dinosaur in my backyard! I read it over and over again until I finally felt that just reading about them was not enough. The book did not satisfy my thirst for knowledge about carnivorous plants. What I needed to do was to grow and study them for myself. The first two carnivorous plants that I began to grow were a Venus Flytrap and Drosera.
Carnivorous plants were first brought to the attention of the western academic world by Arthur Dobbs (1689–1765), former British colonial governor of North Carolina (Rogers, 2009). He states that the Venus Flytrap possesses a unique structure and trapping mechanism, which have made it a source of wonder for over 200 years. At the end of each leaf is a clam-shaped trap with three hairs on each side. When touched by a small insect or an animal, these hairs send a signal which triggers the closure of the trap. The unfortunate insect (usually a fly as implied by the plant's name) struggles desperately to escape from the trap. However, this struggle only makes the plant close tighter. When an insect is completely sealed in, a Venus Flytrap secretes enzymes that dissolve the soft body parts of the prey, absorbing the nutrients it needs to survive. The trap takes less than half a second to close, and five to twelve days
Venus Flytrap. Dionaea muscipula.(Photo Taken by Suh, 2009)
 to fully digest the prey (Leege, L, 2003).
What has kept many botanists stumped is how such rapid movement by a plant is possible. There have been several theories attempting to explain this, yet none of them has succeeded in verifying the exact cause. The most widely accepted view today is “Acid Growth,” developed by Salisbury and Ross (Botanical Society of America, 2009). In their view the move of hydrogen and calcium ions, and the resulting osmotic gradient, is the cause of the swift movement of a Venus Flytrap. This view is strengthened by the fact that a Venus Flytrap’s traps show a certain degree of increased size after movement. However, this view depends significantly on guesswork rather than facts, due to the impossibility of deriving a sufficient amount of evidence out of a plant whose movement is too fast to be measured scientifically (Botanical Society of America, 2009). 
The Drosera, a possible relative of the Venus Flytrap, often called, "the Sundew", is rather slow at trapping their prey yet their trapping mechanism is just as unique as a Venus Flytrap. Droseras are often called the cruelest of all carnivorous plants because of their gruesome killing process. The dew-like glue at the end of each tentacle catches its prey, the Drosera then senses the prey and starts to move its tentacles and leaves towards the captive in a way that further restricts its movement. The more desperately the captured prey tries to escape, the tighter the plant’s grip becomes. Eventually, the anguished prey slowly becomes suffocated due to the glue as it struggles. Some prey does not die from suffocation. Should the prey survive, they will have to face a slow demise, as enzymes and acid dissolve its body. During this process, the body fluid is slowly sucked out by the plant, until the process is finally complete.
Despite its brutality, the Drosera's exquisite beauty makes
Drosera. Drosera rotundifolia.(Photo Taken by Suh, 2009)
 it the most beloved of all carnivorous plants. Its leaves are usually flat, though they vary greatly in size; they are all covered by hundreds of tentacles that secrete dew-like glue. This glue makes a Drosera shine like a gem under the sun. In addition to its beauty, the Drosera is adaptive. There are around 130 variations of Drosera, making it the most diverse genus of carnivorous plant. Variations of this plant are found on almost every continent on Earth (D'amato, 1998).
Droseras are not alone in being versatile. In fact, many carnivorous plants are quite adaptive. As I began to raise carnivorous plants, I could not help but be surprised by how flexible they were in adjusting to different environments. Generally, carnivorous plants require a lot of water; and for a few years, I watered my plants every couple of days as recommended. However, as the number of plants I grew increased, some plants received less water than others. While changing the soil of the plants one day, I found that the plants which had not received as much water had grown roots noticeably longer than those of well watered plants in an attempt to absorb more water from the soil. Also, when I placed a Pinguicula Moranesis, a carnivorous plant that prefers a shaded, damp environment, under strong sunlight with little water, a strange thing happened; its leaves curved inward, which, I assume, was its way of protecting itself by blocking sunlight. Carnivorous plants' ability to cope with changes in their environment accounts for the reason why they have survived for so long in places where other plants cannot.
However, even with their remarkable ability to adjust, carnivorous plants are endangered and decreasing in number (Freedman, 2009). The major reason for this decline is human impact on their habitats. Urbanization, agriculture, and forestry have contributed to the destruction of the environment in which these plants dwell (Freedman, 2009). Because their habitats are restricted to small areas and they have evolved exclusively to live in such environments, the destruction of their habitats is fatal to them (Freedman, 2009). Tissue culture has proved to be an effective method in propagating carnivorous plants, generating more plants than is possible in nature. However, considering human greed as the fundamental cause of this problem, the conservation of carnivorous plants will only be truly possible when people realize the value these plants have in the ecosystem and actively seek ways to protect them (D’amato, 1998).


References

Botanical Society of America. (2009). Dionaea muscipula- the Venus Flytrap. Retrieved on November 9, 2009 from http://www.botany.org/carnivorous_plants/venus_flytrap.php
D’Amato, P. (1998). The Savage Garden —Cultivating Carnivorous Plants. Berkley, California: Ten Speed Press.
Freedman, B. (2009). Conservation and protection of carnivorous plants. Retrieved on November 9, 2009 from http://science.jrank.org/pages/1235/Carnivorous-Plants-Conservation-protection-carnivorous-plants.html
Leege, L. (2003, December 29). How does the Venus Flytrap Digest Flies? Retrieved on November 9, 2009 from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=how-does-the-venus-flytra
Rogers, K. (2009, July 31). The Carnivorous Venus Flytrap Retrieved on December 6, 2009 from
http://www.britannica.com/blogs/2009/07/the-carnivorous-venus-flytrap/