PENDER COUNTY — If you’re a Venus Flytrap, you could live in a carnivore’s dilemma. Eat bugs that come your way, or let them pollinate so there can be more of you?
As it turns out, new research suggests the previously unknown conflict trade-offs do not hinder the carnivorous plant’s survival.
The carnivore’s dilemma
The tiny plants native to southeastern North Carolina rely on anthropods for its meals. Its bugs of choice are spiders, beetles and ants. Scientists have speculated that carnivorous plants may have potentially conflicting survival pressures. Eat or pollinate?
North Carolina State University (NCSU), North Carolina Botanical Garden and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service collaborated to produce the study, published earlier this month.
Pollinator-prey conflict has been examined in the report, “Venus Flytrap Rarely Traps Its Pollinators,” published in The American Naturalist.
Scientists focused on this research gap because of the plant’s vulnerable status, and an open-ended petition to be included under the US Endangered Species Act.
In December, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services placed a “90-day substantial” listing on the petition, which is essentially a call for solid information.
“When that happens you want to know everything about this plant,” said Elsa Youngsteadt, research associate at NCSU and co-author of the paper. “Flytraps have special potential for conflict between needing insects to pollinate it and needing insects to eat.”
Youngsteadt and her team of researchers spent five weeks in Pender County monitoring the pollinator-prey relationship in flytraps and found there was little to no overlap.
“We gently pried open about 200 traps,” she said. “There was very little overlap between what visited the flowers and what the flowers ate.”
Every trap has a flower
Despite its death-trap hairs, flytraps will bloom a white flower in the spring with petals that resemble the flowering dogwood. Flytrap flowers can grow to up to 10 inches tall, whereas the red claws of death sit just centimeters from the ground.
As for the flowers, Youngsteadt says “80 percent of the visitors were things that flew there.” In the trap, its prey were mainly “things that walked there.”
Researchers believe that spatial separation is likely the driving mechanism that protects the plant from suffering from the carnivore’s dilemma — and extinction.
The report concludes in asking, what selective pressures might have shaped the mechanism of spatial separation to prevent pollinator-prey overlap?
Though it’s been speculated that the flytraps are exhibiting some level of intelligence in selecting its prey and overlooking its pollinators, Youngsteadt says this is likely not the case.
“We would not attribute it to intelligence,” she said.
Johanna Ferebee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @j__ferebee on Twitter