Photograph by Edwin Giesbers / Nature Picture Library

Entrapment

Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers a holistic look at life on Earth, seen from above.

“Knowing where the trap is—that’s the first step in evading it.”

Frank Herbert

Plants are our planet’s dominant life-form. According to Scientific American, they comprise 80% of all life on Earth. When we think of plants, we tend to have positive associations. We imagine idyllic forests, fields of flowers, verdant groves of green grass. We think of their many purposes: the way they clean our atmosphere, the medicine they provide. But like all of nature, this kingdom is complex. As docile as they seem, not all plants are peaceful. That’s right: this week, The Overview is looking at carnivorous plants—and what we can learn from them.

 

Carnivorous plants are those that have developed the ability to trap and digest animals. This trait has independently evolved six different times across the plant kingdom, germinating into more than 600 known species today. As diverse as these life-forms are, their ecosystems are often the same: swamps, bogs, heaths, and muddy shores where water is plentiful but nitrogenous soil is not. So, they evolved to get their nutrients elsewhere—not only from sunlight, but other creatures. Amidst harsh conditions, they got creative and grew new pathways for survival.

 

What makes carnivorous plants truly captivating are their intricate traps. Some use lidded leaves that are filled with liquid for digesting animals, like the pitfall traps of pitcher plants. Others use flypaper traps with sticky substances, either on the surface (as with butterworts) or the tips of hairs (like on sundews). Then there are bladderworts which use vacuums to suck in passerbys, and the lobster-pot traps of corkscrew plants, which trap their victims with angled hairs. Inside all these masterful mechanisms lies a secret: not all sustenance has to be sought after. Sometimes you can let it seek you.

 

Of course, we cannot forget the snap traps of the famed Venus flytrap, which use a kind of motion detection to ensnare insects and sometimes even small animals—but only those worth their energy. In addition to their teeth-like edges, each leaf contains a few sensitive hairs that trigger a kind of alarm when any intruder puts pressure on them, causing the plant to spring shut in the blink of an eye (half a second, to be exact). It takes a full 10 days to digest its prey and unlatch its leaves, a reminder that it takes time to process and open ourselves up again.

 

For all of the newsletters I have written on what nature can teach us about harmony and collaboration, it has just as many lessons to offer on violence. Everywhere we turn, we see life devouring life—even where we least expect it, in spaces that might seem safe. In finding our way through, we can invent our own means of survival. We can choose where we get our energy, what’s worth spending it on, and learn to decipher what will sap it. Growth often involves a little gore, but mostly time. After all, the best things come to those who wait.

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