Carnivorous Plants Use a Smelly Trick to Catch Their Prey

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Pitcher plants supplement their diets with this one strange trick: eating flesh. Usually found growing in relatively poor soil, the plants sprout pitcher-shaped cups with pretty, frilly tops that obscure their true purpose: trapping hapless insects. Look inside the pitchers and you’ll find the half-digested bodies of the plants’ victims.

How do insects wind up in this unenviable situation? Do they just, as at least one group of researchers has theorized, fall in by accident? While studies suggest that the plants’ colors and its nectar may attract prey, some scientists think pitchers’ scent may play a role as well.

In a study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One, a research team identified odor molecules emanating from four types of pitcher plants and found that the scents seemed to be correlated with the kinds of insects that wound up in the pitchers. While the study is small and more work is needed to confirm the link, the findings suggest that when insects meet their deaths at the bottom of a pitcher, it may be an aroma they’re following.

Humans tend to describe a pitcher plants’ scent as floral or herbal, said Laurence Gaume, a scientist the French National Centre for Scientific Research and an author of the new paper. Insects may find the scent more striking. Researchers have found in the past that pitchers emitting more volatile compounds tended to attract more flies, but rigorous examinations of what exactly pitchers release and whether it’s connected to the insects they attract have been missing.


https://static01.nyt.com/images/2023/04/21/science/00TB-PITCHERPLANTS/00TB-PITCHERPLANTS-jumbo.jpg?quality=75&auto=webpSarracenia X leucophylla.Credit…Laurence Gaume



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