Pint-Size Predators

The Carnivorous Australian Pitcher Plant

by Ron Dudek on November 23, 2009; last featured August 26, 2012
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When we think of dangerous predators in our sin-cursed world, we usually think of lions and tigers and bears. Plants, on the other hand, inspire images of color, beauty, and good food. But don’t tell that to an insect trapped inside an Australian pitcher plant!

More than 600 species of plants are known to be carnivorous. These botanical oddities lure, capture, kill, and digest insects and even small animals such as tadpoles and frogs.

When God created plants, they were all “good,” designed “for food” to nurture people and animals (Genesis 1:11–13, 29–31). But today’s carnivorous plants show just how topsy-turvy the world has become. After Adam’s rebellion, God cursed the earth so that it would bring forth “thorns and thistles” (Genesis 3:17–18). Plants once meant for good can now cause harm.1

Carnivorous plants come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, but the most voracious are the pitcher plants. Pitcher plants lure prey into their pitcher-shaped leaves, where they get trapped and digested by special chemicals produced by the plant.

Among the largest are the Sarracenia pitcher plants in North America. Some species can grow to over 3 feet (1 m). Recently, large jug-like pitcher plants were discovered in the Philippines containing the remains of digested rats!

None of the North American species possess the striking qualities of a pitcher plant native only to Australia: Cephalotus follicularis, commonly known as the Western Australian pitcher plant. It inhabits the soggy, nutrient-poor soils along the edges of swamps. The pitchers of this “predator plant” rarely exceed 3 inches (7.5 cm) in height, with the majority being closer to 1 inch (2.5 cm).

A typical pitcher resembles a miniature mug with its hinged lid partially open. The nonmoving lid helps prevent rainwater from entering.

The outer body has three ribs that are covered with bristles running vertically up to the pitcher opening. The ribs and bristles are believed to guide prey upwards to the rim, where a generous coating of sweet nectar lures prey to the edge overlooking the interior.

The rim, also known as the peristome, has multiple ribs ending in sharp, thorn-like structures that aim downward into the pitcher. (These sharp downward-pointing hooks look like the metal spikes around bear enclosures at zoos.) Prey will follow the nectar to the ends of these sharp hooks, where they slip and fall into the pitcher.

The pitchers employ several mechanisms to prevent prey from escaping. First, the pitchers contain a liquid laced with digestive enzymes. Second, the interior walls of the pitchers are designed to be slippery. Third, there is a lip or collar beneath the spikes. Even if prey manage to climb out of the liquid and ascend the walls, getting over the lip is extremely difficult. And lastly, there are the sharp downward-pointing spikes at the rim. Captured prey eventually drown and are digested.

The exquisite design of Cephalotus reminds us of the amazing ingenuity and creativity of our God (Romans 1:20). We cannot help but marvel at how this little plant supplements its diet in order to live in nutrient-poor soil. However, its thorn-like structures also remind us that the world is cursed.

But such fallen creatures also remind us that creation will be restored to a curse-free condition (Isaiah 11:6–9; Acts 3:21; Revelation 21:4).

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Cursed Plants

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Footnotes

  1. The harmful designs of carnivorous plants indicate that they resulted from the Curse. Creation biologists are researching several possibilities. See the “Curse” issue of Answers, July–Sept. 2009, especially “Design in the Curse,” p. 31.)

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