Bacteria help carnivorous plants drown their prey

Bacteria may be a meat-eating plant’s best friends thanks to their power to reduce the surface tension of water.

The carnivorous pitcher plant Darlingtonia californica releases water into the tall vases of its leaves, creating deathtraps where insect prey drown. Water in a pitcher leaf starts clear. But after about a week, thanks to bacteria, it turns “murky brown to a dark red and smells horrible,” says David Armitage of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. Now, he’s found that those bacteria can help plants keep insects trapped. Microbial residents reduce the surface tension of water enough for ants and other small insects to slip immediately into the pool instead of perching lightly on the surface, he reports November 23 in Biology Letters.

Armitage seeded tubes of clean water with fluid from the trap pools of pitcher plants and added dead crickets to feed the microbes. After sitting for a month, the mess had about the same surface tension properties as natural pitcher plant pools. Then, he created a series of increasingly dilute samples of pool soup and dropped harvester ants into each one. He found that the ants sank immediately in all but the bacteria-free water sample.

Bacterial populations in a pitcher leaf are akin to those in a mammal gut or bovine rumen, Armitage’s preliminary analysis finds. The microbes can help digest the prey as well as catch it, he says.


D. Armitage. Bacteria facilitate prey retention by the pitcher plant Darlingtonia californica. Biology Letters. Published online November 23, 2016. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2016.0577.

Further Reading

S. Schwartz. Raindrops help pitcher plants trap dinner. Science News Online, October 5, 2015.

S. Milius. Fairly bad pitcher traps triumph in the end. Science News. Vol. 187, February 21, 2015, p. 4.


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