These Carnivorous Plants Inhale Prey Faster Than the Blink of an Eye

February 3, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

Bladderwort flower
Photo credit: Bob Peterson/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

They really suck!

Carnivorous plants use a variety of techniques to capture prey.  Venus flytraps quickly snap shut, pitcher plants rely on a simple bucket-like trap, while the sundew produces a luring water-like sticky fluid and then slowly curls around its dinner.  But did you know the fastest carnivorous plant in the entire world is the bladderwort?  It uses powerful suction, like a vacuum, to snatch its prey.

When a bladderwort opens its trap, whatever was outside finds itself inside faster than the blink of an eye.  The trap is so fast that, until recently, botanists struggled to see it in action.

Thanks to improvements in both science and technology, faster cameras are finally revealing the mysteries of the carnivorous plant.  However, a recent paper published in AoB PLANTS seeking to better understand how a plant can suck so quickly, showed that the closer you look at a bladderwort, the more questions than answers you’ll find.

SEE ALSO: The Deadly Art of the Venus Flytrap

Now that you are ridiculously intrigued about these stealthy, meat-eating plants, let’s learn about how they capture their prey.  The bladderwort waits for prey, mainly small crustaceans, to touch trigger hairs located on a “trapdoor” which closes watertight.  Once the hairs are triggered, a bladder snaps open.  Inside the bladder is empty, so anything nearby is sucked in with an acceleration over 600 times the force of gravity.  That’s crazy fast!

This extreme speed is the key to the bladderwort’s success, however, botanists really do not know how the traps work.  

“The bladderwort traps are considered as some of the most complex structures in the plant kingdom. They are tiny, they are ultrafast in their sucking motion and they are complicated to investigate,” said Simon Poppinga of the research team in a press release.  “With our review we aimed at putting all relevant biophysical and structural information together and to inspire further research on these enigmatic devices.”

Luckily for us, advancements in scanning electron microscopes allow us to see a lot more detail than standard light microscopes.  Below is a very up-close view of a bladderwort trap.

SEM of Bladderwort

photo credit: SEM

What surprised the team was that they discovered not all bladderworts are alike.

"You might think that if the selective pressure on the traps is just about an optimized water flow, then the traps would look more or less identical. But when we looked closely into trap architecture during our experimental studies we found that different plants have different structural arrangements,” said Poppinga.  

“This is probably caused by the fact that different species of bladderwort live in different environments and, hence, might show structural adaptations to the respective habitat,” Poppinga explained.

Despite these differences in trap architecture, they tend to share a similar method of capturing their prey.  The trap is triggered, the trap door opens, the meal is sucked in, and then the trap door shuts before the prey can escape.  

Although it sounds simple, it is an extremely complex sequence of events, and using advanced microscopic techniques could not only lead to discoveries in the trap’s functioning but also other applications too. For example, the development of tools capable of capturing small samples of fluids, and even possibly innovations in the field of biomimetics.

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