Triantha occidentalis, a flowering plant that thrives in wetlands from Alaska all the way down through California, is common. Even around major cities along the West Coast and inland through Montana. But, like Dexter during daytime, the harmless-looking creature is hiding a deadly secrete: it kills bugs for sustenance. Placing it firmly in the little shop of horrors that consists of real-life carnivorous plants.
Gizmodo reported on the discovery, which a team of botanists from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the University of British Columbia outlined in a study recently published in the journal PNAS. Sean Graham, a botanist at UBC, previously led an analysis of the genomes of Alismatales—a group of largely aquatic flowering plants—when his team noticed that Triantha had lost a gene often missing in carnivorous plants. Combined with its tendency to trap insects, this tipped Graham off to the idea the plant species may be carnivorous.
The study’s lead author, Qianshi Lin, a doctoral student at UBC, performed experiments to determine if T. occidentalis is indeed carnivorous. He and his team did so by labeling fruit flies with the stable isotope, nitrogen-15; a non-radioactive isotope that’s able to act as a tracer, in turn allowing scientists to model chemical and biochemical systems. Lo and behold, the team found that the unassuming plant devoured and processed the nutrients from the bugs it’d trapped.
“What’s particularly unique about this carnivorous plant is that it traps insects near its insect-pollinated flowers,” Lin said in a press release. “On the surface, this seems like a conflict between carnivory and pollination because you don’t want to kill the insects that are helping you reproduce.”
T. occidentalis has managed to thrive with thus duality, however. And the species now stands as the 12th independent evolution of carnivory in the plant kingdom scientists are aware of. As well as the first time they’ve discovered the trait in the Alismatales order. Although we’re still not sure if Audrey II should be counted as a 13th lineage.
Feature image: Danilo Lima