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Marion Kyde: It’s Science

A dainty deadly danger



A dangerous new carnivore lurks in northwestern bogs – dangerous, that is, if you happen to be a tiny insect.
This meat-eater, strictly speaking, is not new. Its dainty white flower was first described in 1879, and named Triantha occidentalis, the false bog asphodel. Only this year, an inquisitive graduate student discovered that, like many bog dwelling plants, the asphodel devours insects.
Bog plants have a tough life. Like all living creatures, they need nitrogen, but the acidic waters they inhabit are not friendly to the nitrogen fixing bacteria and fungi that satisfy this need for dry land plants. So, they capture insects; they resort to carnivory.
Botanists know that meat eating evolved 11 separate times in 11 different plant lineages. The bog asphodel represents a 12th independent evolution of the trait, and an entirely different approach. Whereas the insect trapping mechanisms in the other plants we know are widely separated from their flowering parts, the asphodel places its sticky traps on hairs along the stem just underneath its flowers.

Other plants dare not do this, for fear of trapping their own pollinators before their crucial work is done, and a new generation of plants initiated. They raise the flowers far above the leaf traps, or trigger the traps only after pollination. Triantha solves the problem in a different way. Her glue is only mildly sticky – too weak to trap heavy bees or beetles, but just strong enough to catch tiny ants and flies. The plant gets most of its nitrogen, and other needed chemical nutrients from these little insects without the danger of going unpollinated.
It took over 140 years to discover this fact. Triantha, though, has been right under our noses in areas that might even be called urban. How many a bog dweller might have yet another novel mechanism for carnivory? Botanists are looking.
The pragmatist in you may ask: Of what earthly use is this knowledge? The entrepreneur will envision a possible new adhesive; your inner child will wonder and delight in the incredible resourcefulness of nature. If, however, you are a tiny insect living in a bog, you will be looking for a safer stem to climb.
Marion Kyde, Ph.D., is a mycologist easily entertained by the incredible wonders of the natural world. She lives in Tinicum and counts two dogs, two cats, and two black vultures as part of her animal family.