Not all that glitters is nectar

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There’s incredible beauty in nature; often you just have to get on your hands and knees to see it. While working at Archbold Biological Station, I often took walks that required me to step around a large puddle. It was probably because I was too preoccupied with not getting wet that it took me two months to realize that I had been tiptoeing over my favorite kind of plants in the world: carnivorous plants.

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Glancing at the dry pond above, you would probably never expect some of the world’s most amazing plants to live there. But one exciting day I finally noticed the dozens of tiny yellow flowers held two inches above the ground on red stems almost as thin as hair. These are Zigzag Bladderworts (Utricularia subulata), death trap of infinite soil organisms. Instead of having roots, bladderworts have a tangle of underground stems that hundreds of tiny bladders are attached to. These bladders suck in tiny soil organisms as they crawl by, and digest them with a soup of acids and enzymes.

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But these lethal gems were not alone. Scattered around them were more beauties glittering with death. These plants were also covered in sparkling drops, but unlike the dew on the bladderworts, these were drops of mucus secreted by the plants. For this reason, the plants are called sundews. This species is the Pink Sundew (Drosera capillaris).

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Sundews are also carnivorous plants that attract small flies with red and sparkling leaves, but when an insect lands on one, it becomes trapped in a gooey mess. Over a period of hours or minutes, the sundew curls its tentacles, and sometimes its entire leaf, around the struggling insect and digests it with acids and enzymes.

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After you recover from the shock of learning that plants could be so sinister, you might wonder why they do this. Like humans, plants are often most motivated by two things: food and sex. In this case, it’s a lack of food that caused these plants to become carnivorous. Sundew, bladderworts, and nearly all other carnivorous plants grow in wet, peaty soils that are very low in nutrients. To overcome this challenge, carnivorous plants evolved ingenious ways to supplement their diet with the nutrients in insects. If you think about it, that’s about as impressive as humans evolving roots!

There’s always more than meets the eye in nature, whether you’re looking at a dried up pond, or even a pretty flower.

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