Animal Eating Plants: A Delightfully Frightening Reversal

Carnivore…the word conjures meat and bones. A fleshiness. Thick fur or leathery scales and two rows of sharp, gleaming teeth. Today, however, I’ll tell you three stories (with three videos!) for which “carnivore” has a leafier connotation.

STORY NUMBER ONE—Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider Trap.

We all know the Venus Fly Trap. High school biology textbooks tout it as the…well, I don’t know what they tout it as, but it’s definitely in the books. It’s the poster child for carnivorous plant life and rightfully so. But how does it work?

Sneakily.

Six hairs on the inside of the mouth serve as triggers, tiny sensors to detect clueless prey. Touching one hair activates an internal timer, tick counting down tick until another hair tick is touched CLAMP!, at which point the mouth snaps shut and finger-like extensions along the leaf’s edge interlock to prevent escape.

Then, in a process that feels more borne out of a horror movie than an evolutionary adaptation, the plant digests its meal alive, slowly dissolving the frightened insect as it buzzes and squeals and squirms helplessly from behind leafy green bars. Now most scientists will tell you that flies (or spiders or crickets or any of the other tiny-crawly-thingys the fly trap eats) don’t feel fear or any emotion at all, and they’re right. But try and watch this video without cringing just a little. I bet you never thought you’d feel sorry for a fly.

NUMBER TWO—Drinking & Flying

Our next herbaceous predator also catches her prey with cunning, but this time using more trickery than surprise. The Pitcher Plant is aptly named—it’s shaped like a long, thin pitcher with a colorful leafy flourish at the top from which one could imagine icy cold drinks pour. But this plant is deceptive. And selfish. Whatever drinks she offers, she offers only out of a duplicitous desire to eat.

All along the surface of the pitcher she secretes a sweet nectar. With it, she beckons hungry insects:

“Come all, come many! Drink from my leaf, I offer it freely to all six-legged patrons!”

And so the bugs come crawling along. And the nectar is good. It’s really good. “Have more, my friends,” the plant says, “drink up!” And so they work their way up the leaf, trusting in the sweet succulence.

Until they get to the top.

See, at the lip of the plant, at the brim of the pitcher, the plant has laced her generous meal with narcotics. So the bugs’ last drinks taste a little funny. They get woozy, they lose their balance, and before they can realize they’ve been duped, they—Plop!—fall off the edge, right down the pitcher, into the stomach of a scheming plant.

In the video below, you can watch a fly drinking its fill, losing its balance, gaining it, losing it again, and just when you think she’s got the plant beat, giving in and dropping to her doom.

THREE—Plant Slavery?

 Ok, I’m cheating with this one. This plant doesn’t eat animals, it enslaves them (which is equally as fun). It’s actually a tree, an Acacia Tree.

The Acacia Tree, like the Pitcher Plant, cleverly uses drugs to achieve its ends, only this time the animals really do benefit…most of the time. The tree has formed a symbiotic relationship with ants who, in return for a constant supply of drug-infused, sugary nectar, act as protectors, swarming and attacking any animals or plants that infringe on the Acacia’s good time. And when I say “any,” I mean any. These ants will attack vines, grasshoppers, spiders, even giraffes—animals with whom a fight may spell almost certain death.

Which raises the question: why are these ants so loyal to their tree? Are the drugs just that good? Well, kinda. The nectar is infused with a chemical that, as blogger Brian Merchant puts it, “drives the ants into a defensive frenzy,” sort of like pumping them up with steroids and testosterone and unleashing them to attack anything that moves. So they are, in effect, slaves.

But slaves with comfy digs!

The Acacia dutifully provides housing for its drug-induced army, giving the ants protection within hollowed-out thorns at the base of its leaves, even going so far as to provide little nutritional packages for the ant larvae. So it not only plays the role of drug-lord and commander-in-chief, but also that of breeder. It’s like an Empire commander tree with a clone army of ants (indulgent Star Wars reference, check).

This video was made before the discovery of the mind-control-esque chemical in the nectar, so it’s got a cheerier outlook, but you can read about the chemical here.

Each of these plants reminds me so vividly of the wonderful, intricate, and exciting phenomenon that is evolution; how our planet and the universe whittle away endlessly and incrementally at their creations, molding life into the vibrantly speckled hodgepodge of creatures we have today. One can only marvel at nature’s unfinished masterpiece and wonder about what it all might be.

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