Encounters with Plants that BITE!

March 30, 2020

In late 2018, the BRIT Philecology Herbarium received funds from the National Science Foundation Grant: “Endless Forms most beautiful and most wonderful” to digitize collections of species across 15 plant families that have unique adaptations and morphologies. These plants may live in extreme and highly specific environments that face elevated risks of extinction in the rapidly changing climate that we’re seeing today. Dozens of herbaria across the United States are digitizing their collections representing these peculiar families in an effort to aid in research about their evolutionary history, ecology, conservation tactics, and more. Some of the groups of plants that fall under this grant include epiphytes (such as orchids), succulents (cacti and some euphorbs), and carnivores!

The carnivorous families included in this project are Droseraceae (sundews), Lentibulariaceae (bladderworts), Nepenthaceae (tropical pitcher plants), and Sarraceniaceae (pitcher plants). By the end of 2019, over 2,000 sheets of these families in both the BRIT/SMU and VDB collections were imaged and are currently in the process of transcription and georeferencing. These specimens have been collected over a span of 200+ years and from around the globe. This project will help liberate the invaluable data of these collections. In the meantime, it has also allowed staff and volunteers to uncover a hidden treasure trove of exceptional collections. 

Darlingtonia californica collected in Placer County, California in 1877.
Darlingtonia californica, cobra lily, collected in1877 in Plumas County, California.

The specimen shown above came to BRIT through the acquisition of the Dartmouth College Herbarium (HNH) in 2002. The roughly 25,000 specimens have already proven to be an impressive addition with the discovery of fern specimens collected by the father of national parks, John Muir, in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. 

Darlingtonia californica, or cobra lily, is endemic to regions in northern California and southern Oregon. Like other carnivorous plants, cobra lilies thrive in nutrient-poor acidic environments (like bogs) yet make up for the lack of certain nutrients by luring insects to their trap and digesting them. If you look closely at this specimen (and the image below), you can actually see an insect pressed with the plant! This beetle may have been more interested in the cobra lily's flower rather than the enticing scent coming from under the hood of the modified tubular leaves. Regardless, it is rare to see insects on herbarium sheets so this was exciting to stumble upon! 

A Coleoptera beetle accidentally pressed in this collection.
A beetle accidentally pressed on the herbarium sheet.

BRIT Herbarium staff Tiana Rehman and Ashley Bordelon had the opportunity to encounter thousands of LIVE bug-hungry plants during their visit to the Austin-based carnivorous plant nursery, Carniveroin October 2019. Owner Drew Martinez has been cultivating and breeding all varieties of pitcher plants and other carnivorous plants for the past four years but has had a love and appreciation for these plants for most of his life. A past BRIT Summer Intern, Hannah Liebermann, is now employed as a horticulturist for Carnivero. BRIT loves to see where past interns have taken their plant passions and ventured off to! 

Owner of Carnivero, Drew Martinez, and horticulturist, Hannah Liebermann. 
Owner of Carnivero Drew Martinez and horticulturist Hannah Liebermann. 

Carnivero plans to have a storefront in the near future but for now, it only fulfills online orders of their wide variety of carnivorous plants and other tropical plants found all over the world. Martinez informs us that his nursery keeps conservation in mind and hopes that the beautiful and hardy hybrids he cultivates will mean that fewer plants will be illegally taken in the wild. These plants are not for everyone. It takes a lot of respect and patience to care for one at home because they live in highly specific environments in the wild such as high elevation, acidic soil, water temperature, humidity, etc. 

Nepenthes hybrid

Carnivorous plants are obviously special because of their insect-only diet, but there are other interesting traits they exhibit to lure and capture their prey. There are species of Nepenthes that are masters of inducing bugs to slip and fall into their traps. The rim (or peristome and ribs) of the plant is one of the slipperiest surfaces on Earth when wet. This surface has inspired many scientists to try and replicate it! Did you know that some of these species including other carnivorous plants (like Venus flytraps) also emit pigments that can only be seen on the ultraviolet spectrum? These are just a few things that scientists have learned from studying these plants, and there are bound to be more discoveries in the future!

Endless Forms exhibit featured in upper Atrium exhibit space (October 2019) by the BRIT Herbarium highlighting carnivorous plants alongside related books that can be found in the BRIT Library.
Bilingual Endless Forms exhibit by the BRIT Herbarium -- featured in Upper Atrium Research Gallery (October 2019) -- highlighting carnivorous plants alongside illustrations and related books from the BRIT Library.
"... whilst the planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved." - Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species

Leave A Response

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Related Articles

BRIT Aerial Surveys – New Projects Up in the Air

When we look at something from a different perspective, we usually see something new—something we might have not seen before or something familiar seen in a new context. Discovery of the new is precisely why we’ve recently started to explore ways to look at landscapes and ecosystems from a new perspective—namely, from the air. With very simple and affordable components such as helium balloons, kites, and point-and-shoot cameras, we’ve been able to capture great aerial images of the BRIT campus. And with some rather sophisticated software (details below) we were able to analyze the images to create a number of products that are valuable to our ongoing understanding of landscapes and ecosystems. Hasn’t this already been done? When we first posted our aerial survey imagery online through Face...
Read More >

Aerial Survey Resources – For Beginners

This page is constantly evolving as a resource for conducting aerial surveys. At this point, it’s not meant to be comprehensive or provide everything you need to get started. It’s just to give you a general framework for the process and to point you to other resources. If you have questions or suggestions, please comment below. The blog post describing BRIT’s initial aerial surveys is at http://brit.org/phytophilia/aerial-surveys-at-BRIT and provides a bit more background about some of the reasons BRIT is conducting these surveys. Starting a new aerial survey project generally involves the following steps: Purchase/gather/make survey kit Perform survey Process images Survey Kit One of the best places to get started is at Public Lab ( http://publiclab.org ). This group provides a wealth of...
Read More >

Mary Sophie on the Move: Busted Freezer Gets Relocated, Repurposed

By Research Associate Will Godwin, PhD Adaptive reuse or re-purposing has become a popular method to achieve green or sustainable design. It even extends into the aesthetics of interior design through shabby-chic and the more avant-garde, lab-chic. But reuse is not a recent idea. It has a long history in the natural world. Charles Darwin was the first to call it “pre-adaptation.” By the 1980’s the term was adjusted to “exaptation” primarily to avoid connotations of premeditation. Exaptation happens when a structure or behavior that was useful for one function is suddenly and serendipitously useful in a new way. Animals and plants have been finding fortuitous new uses for stuff they already had for millions of years. Often it gave the survivors that unexpected edge required to survive. The...
Read More >

A 54-Year Celebration

The Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas ( JBRIT ) is celebrating its 54th year of continuous publication. It all started when Lloyd H. Shinners —a member of the Southern Methodist University (SMU) faculty and a prolific botanical researcher and writer who wanted to edit his work and the work of others—founded and published the first two issues of Sida, Contributions to Botany on November 23, 1962. He named the journal for a genus ( Sida ) of yellow-flowered plants of the mallow or cotton family (Malvaceae), distributed throughout the world and especially common in Texas. Shinners served as editor and publisher until his death in 1971, after which William F. Mahler, professor of botany at SMU, inherited the journal and continued to edit and privately publish it. Barney Lips...
Read More >