Monday, 8 October 2012

A new challenger for title of 'world's coolest plant'?

Carnivorous plants (plants that eat animals) are very important to a plant science fan like me. This is because they are the only plants which are universally regarded as cool. Of course, I think that all plants are totally super wicked awesome, but that is generally not something that I choose to say out loud in front of other humans. Carnivorous plants give me an opportunity to talk about plants in public places, without concealing my identity, and yet not give away just how much of a massive plant-nerd I am. If I was trying to get all of my favorite plants into a trendy nightclub, I would send the carnivorous plants first. They would have no trouble getting in. Then if the daisies and sunflowers got stopped because they 'didn't meet the dress-code' or 'weren't on the list', the carnivorous plants could turn around and say, "it's cool man, they're with us".

 By far the most famous of the carnivorous plants is the Venus Flytrap. There is a good reason for this: it's truly bad-ass, as David Attenborough will tell you (well, okay, he doesn't use those exact words). With it's touch-triggered jaws of eternal doom, the Venus Flytrap is the uncontested coolest of the cool. Or is it?

 A few weeks ago, a group of six German-based scientists published a paper in which they promote another contender for the title of coolest kid in the plant kingdom: the Pimpernel Sundew. Much like the Venus Flytrap, this sundew doesn't just have a bad-ass name, it also has a bad-ass way of catching its prey. Like all sundews, it has special leaves covered in drops of glue, which trap and suffocate insects allowing the plant to digest them, but that's not the exciting bit. The Pimpernel Sundew takes things up a notch in a way that hasn't been observed in any other plant species. Surrounding the sticky leaves, it has a ring of 'snap-tentacles' that act as catapults. Every time an unsuspecting insects lands one of these mini-catapults, the tentacle snaps quickly and flings the helpless animal onto the inner leaves where it meets its gluey fate. If you can can't imagine just how awesome this heartless insect-munching machine is, then I suggest you watch this video, which the researchers included with their paper:

 Although they don't quite come out and say it in their paper, the researchers clearly think that the Pimpernel Sundew deserves at least as much street-cred as the Venus Flytrap. In their introduction, they make a point of mentioning that the catapults "can bend within a fraction of a second, similar to the speeds reported for the Venus Flytrap". This is scientist-speak for "mine's just as quick as yours". They also clearly think that public recognition for the coolness of this catapult of insect death is long-overdue. They note that although the fly-flinging mechanism was first discovered in 1974, "remarkably, these fascinating observations and interpretation received no consideration until 2010, and trapping action in D. glanduligera has not been documented or investigated in depth until now."

 Although they did do some actual experiments and did manage to work out a biological mechanism by which the catapults are able to snap so quickly, I think the real reason for publishing this paper is clear. The authors are obviously fed-up with the Venus Flytrap stealing the limelight. They think that the Pimpernel Sundew is way more cool, and they've decided that it's time to tell the world. 

 This is an exciting time to be a carnivorous plant. The Venus Flytrap's long reign as undisputed champion of cool is being threatened and we may soon have a new world's coolest plant. At the very least, there will be a bit more room for debate. My guess is that, just like Superman vs. Batman, Ketchup vs. Brown Sauce and Lenny vs. Carl, this battle is one that will rage on forever. 

[NOTE: Because the paper was published in the open-access journal PLoS ONE (woo!), you can read the whole thing for free at:]

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