Friend or Food? Why Venus Flytraps Don’t Eat Their Pollinators
By Clyde Sorenson, Elsa Youngsteadt and Rebecca Irwin
The Venus flytrap, Dionaea muscipula, lives in a tough neighborhood. It only grows in 12 counties in coastal North and South Carolina, in soils that are very nutrient-poor and often waterlogged. To augment these starvation resources, it captures and digests insects and other animal prey.
Of the roughly 600 known species of carnivorous plants worldwide, the Venus flytrap is by far the most famous; it fascinated Charles Darwin and many other naturalists since his time. Scientists have spent an extraordinary amount of time and effort trying to understand how its unique active snap-trap leaves close so quickly. But, for the Venus flytrap, no one has ever paid much attention to the critical service that animals provide for most flowering plants: pollination.
With colleagues at North Carolina State University, the North Carolina Botanical Garden and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, we recently set out to discover who pollinates the Venus flytrap. We wanted to know whether the plant preyed on the same insects that pollinate it—and if it did not, to begin to understand why.
The Predator's Dilemma
The last thing a carnivorous plant "wants" to do is consume an insect that has pollen on it from another plant of its species—especially if insects that transport the pollen efficiently are uncommon. Eating one's pollinators wastes the energy used to make that pollen, and it could reduce the number of potential seeds a plant can make.
Scientists have proposed three mechanisms that can help explain how carnivorous plants avoid making this evolutionary mistake. First, the plant's flowers and traps can open at different times of the growing season, as occurs in some pitcher plants. Second, the flowers and traps can use different attractants, such as scents or colors, as is true of some sundews. Third, its flowers can be located away from its traps.
Venus flytraps in bloomClyde Sorenson, CC BY-ND
We know that the Venus flytrap's flowers and traps are both open at the same time, so separation in time does not explain how the plant avoids eating its allies. The plant's flowers typically are located 6 to 10 inches above its traps on a long, bare stalk. The traps, which can snap shut in less than a second when anything touches their sensitive trigger hairs, are usually very close to the ground.
The plant's architecture thus suggests that maybe separation in space helps to protect pollinators. To understand whether or not Venus flytraps successfully avoid eating their pollinators through another mechanism, we first had to compare the insects found on the flowers to those found in the traps.
Identifying Flytrap Pollinators and Prey
We spent a total of almost 30 person-hours collecting all the arthropod visitors we could find in Venus flytrap stands in coastal North Carolina. Most of the insects and spiders we caught were captured straight into small plastic vials, but we used nets for particularly agile individuals.
We put the creatures we captured on dry ice, which quickly killed them, took them back to our lab, and swabbed them with dyed gelatin to remove any pollen. The dye stained the pollen so we could identify and count it. Then we identified the arthropods and the different kinds of pollen they carried, if any. In total we collected, swabbed and identified 409 insects and spiders.
We also carefully removed captured prey from plants' closed traps and popped these specimens into small vials of alcohol for identification in the lab. Some were still kicking when we extracted them, while others had been reduced to empty husks by the digestive enzymes that flytraps secrete from their leaves when they catch prey. However, we were able to successfully identify 212 individuals.
Longhorned beetle on a Venus flytrap flowerClyde Sorenson, CC BY-ND
Pollinators: Bees and Beetles
The Venus flytrap has beautiful, saucer-shaped white flowers about three-quarters of an inch wide. This kind of flower frequently attracts a wide range of insects. We captured almost a hundred different species from flytrap flowers.
Most of the specimens carrying flytrap pollen—which has huge, distinctive grains—were either bees or beetles. A small green sweat bee, a checkered beetle and a flower longhorn beetle appear to be the three most important pollen transporters, measured by their abundance in the flowers and the amount of pollen they carried.
Three-quarters of the insects we retrieved with flytrap pollen on them also carried pollen from other plants blooming at the same time in the vicinity. This told us that most of these insects were not focusing solely on flytraps. Pollinators that carry flytrap pollen and visit other flowers may "waste" the flytrap pollen by depositing it on those flowers. And pollen from other species carried to flytrap flowers by "unfaithful" pollinators can interfere with flytrap pollen, if it finds its way to the flower's stigma.
Prey: Spiders and Ants
The prey items we removed from the traps were also diverse, but two-thirds were either spiders or ants. We did not find any of the 10 most frequent flower visitors in the traps, except for one crab spider. Most of the small proportion of species we found in both traps and flowers did not turn out to be carrying pollen when we retrieved them from flytrap flowers.
These findings indicate that there is very little overlap between prey species and pollinator species. Most of the insects that visit flytrap flowers are capable of flight and use that ability to get to the flowers. In contrast, most of the prey animals find their way into the traps by walking into them. (A better name for the plant might be "Venus spidertrap.")
Our findings suggest that physical separation between the Venus flytrap's flowers and traps helps prevent the plant from consuming its pollinators. But we can't yet rule out other mechanisms that may also help keep the plant from eating its allies.
Venus flytrap habitatJennifer Koches, USFWS
The Venus flytrap is threatened, and its numbers are declining. North and South Carolina's human populations are growing, and the flytrap's coastal habitat is highly desirable for development. The plant requires frequent low-intensity fires to maintain its exposure to the sun; in many places, humans have suppressed these fires.
More perniciously, poachers collect the plants illegally for sale to unsuspecting plant lovers. Poaching wild flytraps is now a felony in North Carolina. And a group of scientists has petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Venus flytrap as an endangered species. Going forward, understanding the Venus flytrap's reproductive ecology will be critical for conserving this remarkable plant.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
By Kang-Chun Cheng
Modoc County lies in the far northeast corner of California, and most of its 10,000 residents rely on cattle herding, logging, or government jobs for employment. Rodeos and 4-H programs fill most families' calendars; massive belt buckles, blue jeans, and cowboy hats are common attire. Modoc's niche brand of American individualism stems from a free-spirited cowboy culture that imbues the local ranching conflict with wild horses.
The History of Horse Management<p>Before the 1950s, feral horses were largely unregulated in the U.S. They were released, grazed, captured, killed, sold, and otherwise <a href="http://www.blm.gov/sites/blm.gov/files/WHB-Report-2020-NewCover-051920-508.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">managed by local inhabitants</a> as they saw fit. Around that time, Velma Bronn Johnston, aka "Wild Horse Annie," started raising public awareness of the "perceived inhumane capture and treatment of free-ranging herds."</p><p>Thanks in part to Johnston's efforts, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was signed into law by President Nixon in 1971. It declared that the animals "shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this, they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands."</p><p><a href="http://science.sciencemag.org/content/341/6148/847.full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">This act</a> has been amended four times since its conception to accommodate the fluctuating opinions and conditions around maintaining a "thriving natural ecological balance on the public lands"—an admirable although highly subjective goal. Achieving it involves juggling competing interests: those of local residents, permanent grazers, hunters and fishers, advocacy groups, conservationists, and Indigenous tribes.</p><p>The Bureau of Land Management must manage these many conflicting interests. Modoc County's <a href="https://www.fs.fed.us/wild-horse-burro/territories/DevilsGardenPlateau.shtml" target="_blank">Devil's Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory</a> epitomizes the challenges of this task. Officially deemed wild horse territory, the garden consists of 258,000 acres and is wholly within permitted livestock allotments. It is also home to wildlife such as cougar, antelope, migratory birds, and aquatic species dependent on delicate high-desert riparian areas.</p><p>The presence of wild horses has been shown to <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S014019631530094X" target="_blank">decrease native wildlife species diversity</a> for both birds and mammals. Pronghorn antelope are an icon in Western grasslands, known for their annual 350-mile migration along historic routes estimated to be 5,800 years old. This awe-inspiring trek is one of the longest large-mammal migration corridors remaining in North America, but 75% of <a href="http://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2004.00548.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pronghorn migration routes</a> have already been lost because of disturbances from the accelerated leasing of public lands and energy development. Horses also affect the pronghorn's yearly migrations by <a href="http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S014019631630218X" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">monopolizing watering holes</a>, thus preventing native species from drinking.</p>
Indigenous Support for Ecological Balance<p>Ken Sandusky, a public information officer who has worked for the Forest Service in Modoc County for 13 years, lives by his station's mission statement: "Caring for the Land and Serving People." In his work, Sandusky aims to include the broad range of stakeholders and often acts as a tribal liaison. Sandusky himself is a member of the Choctaw tribe of Oklahoma, but as a Modoc native, is more culturally in touch with the local Klamath tribe.</p><p>When it comes to rangeland health, he says, there's a tangible split in what that actually means. "It depends on what you are measuring the outcome against," Sandusky explains. Range managers may perceive progress from a year-to-year basis, but to many Indigenous tribes, the baseline for "progress" goes back generations, to pre-contact times. "They have long memories," he says. "Tribes see damage that is a hundred-plus years in the making."</p>
A Willingness to Try New Things<p>"Americans don't know what's happening on these lands," says Suzanne Roy, the executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign, an advocacy organization. The Bureau of Land Management, she says, "is run by and for the livestock industry. They come from a ranching background. The term 'rangeland' management itself illustrates how livestock management is the dominant perspective."</p><p>Roy is particularly concerned about how resources are being allocated: "Policies of land management agencies don't reflect the desires and interests of the public." To illustrate, most Americans associate public lands with national parks and environmental conservation; only 29% of respondents to a recent poll considered livestock grazing an acceptable use of those lands.</p><p>Grazing on public lands certainly aligns with the financial interests of cattle ranchers and helps explain why they insist on increased wild horse management. Cattle can <a href="http://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RS21232.pdf" target="_blank">graze on public lands</a> for $1.35 per animal per month, while grazing on comparable private land costs ranchers $23 per animal per month (American taxpayer dollars make up the difference). To be fair, though, small-scale ranching would not be viable without public lands.</p><p>The campaign hopes to work toward more equitable resource allocation and improvements to overall habitats for horses and wildlife generally. "There are workable solutions to this issue," Roy says. "Common pushback from rangers is that new conservation strategies will 'destroy our way of life,' but change doesn't have to be bad."</p><p>The <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0362331994900264" target="_blank">social conservatism</a> intrinsic to human cultures makes change seem daunting and people reluctant to try new tactics even in the face of suboptimal systems. Roy uses a case in adjacent Marin County to illustrate: Until 2001, the county ran a USDA program focused on killing apex predators (e.g. coyotes, mountain lions, and cougars) in defense of livestock. Unfortunately, this strategy fails to take into account the science of predators. Killing one mountain lion, for example, creates a vacuum and will eventually lead to increased competition for this newly available territory. In 2001, Marin introduced a country-run program that promoted nonlethal methods such as fox lights, guard dogs, and fladry to deal with predator incidents while compensating ranchers for sheep and lambs lost to predation.</p><p>Ranchers were initially livid, concerned that bans on shooting and trapping hindered their rights, making them defenseless against livestock predation. But 15 years later, a majority agreed that this form of humane <a href="http://www.projectcoyote.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Camilla-Fox-Thesis-FINAL-January-2008.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">adaptive management </a>has successfully reduced both livestock losses and the total number of predators. Ensuring its continued success, the program requires active participation on behalf of all stakeholders and long-term commitment from the local government for support.</p><p>As one fifth-generation sheepherder, Gowan Batiste, explained in an interview to the <a href="https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/mendocino-county-rancher-and-others-calling-for-non-lethal-wildlife-management/ar-BB16CJ8g" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Ukiah Daily Journal,</a> "Livestock is a food of desperation for predators; the more you harass them and make life difficult for them, the more likely they are going to come into conflict with humans."</p>
Keeping Wild Horses in Check<p>When it comes to wild horses, many solutions are already in the works. Through annual autumn wild horse roundups, known as gathers, the Double Devil Wild Horse Corrals has become one of the U.S.'s most successful adoption sites. The California Cattlemen's Association, a nonprofit trade association and organization popular among ranchers in Modoc, urges its members to support the wild horse gathers in Devils Garden, saying they are humane, good for the horses themselves (since competition for scarce water and forage resources may instigate aggression and <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/j.1439-0310.1981.tb01930.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">herd violence</a>), and necessary to support local ranchers and Modoc's agriculture-reliant economy.</p><p>Another popular solution for controlling wild horse populations is a fertility-control vaccine called PZP, given to female horses on the range <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ur7w3UPTCsk" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">using dart guns</a>. Mares are tracked on foot or with game cameras while drones are used to locate more elusive herds. The PZP vaccine has been endorsed by the American Wild Horse Campaign as the "<a href="https://americanwildhorsecampaign.org/fertility-control" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">most promising strategy</a>" for managing wild horses in their habitats and is also recommended by the National Academy of Sciences. Importantly, a dose of the vaccine only costs $30.</p><p>Lastly, land acquisition and <a href="https://americanwildhorsecampaign.org/equitable-share-resources" target="_blank">grazing lease buyouts</a> can promote equitable sharing of public lands and available forage. Acquiring key pieces of land adjacent to or within federally designated wild horse habitat areas can reduce conflicts over resource allocation.</p>
A Global Search for Solutions<p>Pastoralists all over the world face similar land-use conflicts, despite huge variations in climate and culture. The ongoing situation across rural California resonates with that of Fulani cattle herders in Niger and Sami reindeer herders in the Arctic.</p><p>Herders everywhere are accused of having too many animals or are perceived as selfish and irresponsible by their own communities. Overgrazing is certainly an issue, but it's not simply the number of animals that matters: The <a href="https://savory.global/holistic-management/" target="_blank">amount of time</a> animals spend in a certain area is critical to rangeland health. And in the context of such allegations, the ecological value of grazing is frequently omitted. Grazers, both wild and domestic, <a href="https://www.yesmagazine.org/issue/food-everyone/2019/02/04/restoring-the-range-can-beef-be-earth-friendly/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are key to regulating soil health and allowing for species diversity and coverage, </a>as well as efficient carbon sequestration.</p><p>Part of the problem in these heated grazing debates is that moderate viewpoints are drowned out by extremist agendas—those who prioritize wild horse populations at all costs and those who want all of the horses gone, period. "The majority of people don't really have strong views about the horses," Sandusky says. "But the ones who do can get really into it." These unwavering views make it difficult to find compromises that account for all stakeholders.</p><p>"There is no biological problem, merely a social one," says professor Nicholas Tyler, a pastoralism expert at the University of Tromsø in northern Norway. Tyler maintains that in the case of horses and cattle in the West, as with so many others, the so-called equilibria argument is specious and quasi-biological. "Certainly a lot of horses will influence the species composition," he says. "Remove the horses, things change. Add horses, things change again. There is nothing magical about that."</p><p>But Tyler takes it one step further: "There never was, is, or will be a balance. There are shifting equilibria, which is something quite different," he says. "It is up to the community to decide which state of that equilibrium it prefers."</p>
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Anne-Sophie Brändlin
1. My Octopus Teacher (2020)<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="43d618cfe4dea9f32fdb2880868a6f5f"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/3s0LTDhqe5A?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>No person has ever gotten as <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/my-octopus-teacher-movie-2647785692.html">close and intimate with a wild octopus</a> as South African filmmaker Craig Foster, who decided to head out to an underwater kelp forest in the Atlantic Ocean every day for an entire year to capture the life of the mesmerizing creature. An unusual, touching friendship develops that will likely change the way you see your relationship to animals and the planet.</p>
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9. Years of Living Dangerously (2014)<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="585f966df408ae57e3e31747a6c0a66b"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/juXzfwvVHZQ?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>In this Emmy-winning documentary series, celebrity correspondents travel the world to interview experts and scientists on the climate crisis and its effects. But rather than focusing on its star power, the two-season series also shines a spotlight on ordinary people affected by the climate crisis and shows how we can save our world for future generations.</p>
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By Victoria Masterson
Using one of the world's problems to solve another is the philosophy behind a Norwegian start-up's mission to develop affordable housing from 100% recycled plastic.
Sustainable Homes<p>UN-Habitat says an <a href="https://unhabitat.org/un-habitat-aims-to-use-plastic-waste-to-support-housing-for-all" target="_blank">estimated 60% of people living in urban areas of Africa are in informal settlements</a>. At the same time, between 1990 and 2017, African countries imported around 230 metric tonnes of plastic, "which mostly ended up in dump sites creating a massive environmental challenge," the agency adds.</p><p>UN-Habitat deputy executive director, Victor Kisob, said the aim of the partnership with Othalo was to "promote adequate, sustainable and affordable housing for all."</p>
Artist's impression of an Othalo community, imagined by architect Julien De Smedt. Othalo<p>Othalo's process involves shredding plastic waste and mixing it with other elements, including non-flammable materials. Components are used to build up to four floors, with a home of 60 square metres using eight tons of recycled plastic. A factory with one production line can produce 2,800 housing units annually.</p><p>Following successful laboratory tests, Othalo's factory in Estonia has started producing components to build three demonstration homes for Kenya's capital, Nairobi; Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon and Dakar, the capital of Senegal.</p><p>Othalo founder Frank Cato Lahti has been developing and testing the technology since 2016 in partnership with <a href="https://www.sintef.no/en/" target="_blank">SINTEF</a>, a 70-year-old independent research organization in Trondheim, Norway, and experts at Norway's <a href="https://en.uit.no/startsida" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">University of Tromsø</a>.</p>
Othalo founder Frank Cato Lahti. Othalo<p>Almost <a href="https://www.un.org/development/desa/publications/2018-revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html" target="_blank">seven out of every 10 people in the world are expected to live in urban areas by 2050</a>. More than 90% of this growth will take place in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.</p><p>"In the absence of effective urban planning, the consequences of this rapid urbanization will be dramatic," UN-Habitat warns.</p><p>Lack of proper housing and growth of slums, inadequate and outdated infrastructure, escalating poverty and unemployment, and pollution and health issues, are just some of the effects.</p><p>Mindsets, policies, and approaches towards urbanization need to change for the growth of cities and urban areas to be turned into opportunities that will leave nobody behind, UN-Habitat says.</p>
Pioneers of Change<p>Reimagining cities and communities for greater resilience and sustainability was a key topic at the<a href="https://www.weforum.org/events/pioneers-of-change-summit-2020" target="_blank"> World Economic Forum's Pioneers of Change Summit 2020</a>.</p><p>The digital event brought together innovators and stakeholders from around the world to explore solutions to the challenges facing enterprises, governments and society.</p><p>Opening the summit, <a href="https://www.weforum.org/events/pioneers-of-change-summit-2020/sessions/opening-plenary-8f731cbc65" target="_blank">Stephan Mergenthaler, the Forum's Head of Strategic Intelligence and a member of the Executive Committee</a>, said: "We need to change the way we produce, the way we live and interact in our cities to make this transition to net-zero emissions a reality…</p><p>"And as this year has illustrated so dramatically, we need to make every effort that we keep populations healthy, if we want to avoid jeopardizing all this progress."</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/11/un-africa-recycled-plastic-housing/" target="_blank">World Economic Forum</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649069252#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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