Let’s learn about meat-eating plants

Some predatory plants devour insects, while others dine on reptiles and mammals

What’s the opposite of a vegetarian? A meat-eating plant. Venus flytraps (pictured) are perhaps the most famous predatory plants. But they have hundreds of carnivorous cousins.

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Normally, animals are the ones who eat plants. But some fearsome flora have turned the tables. Meat-eating plants gobble up insects, reptiles and even small mammals.

For these carnivorous plants, animals are more of a side dish than the main course. Like other plants, meat-eaters get their energy from sunlight through photosynthesis. But animal snacks can provide extra nutrients that allow the plants to live in nutrient-poor soils. Such environments include bogs and rocky terrain.  

There are more than 600 known species of predatory plants. Some are familiar, like the Venus flytrap. Others have been hiding in plain sight. Scientists recently found, for instance, that a well-known white flower called Triantha occidentalis eats insects. The flower uses sticky hairs on its stem to snare its prey.

Most flesh-eating plants have a taste for insects. But others gulp down birds, mice or amphibians like frogs and baby salamanders. Carnivorous plants that live underwater dine on mosquito larvae and fish. To digest their food, plants use flesh-eating molecules called enzymes or bacteria.  

Meat-eating plants have a few different tricks up their leaves to lure in prey. The Venus flytrap snaps up insects in jawlike leaves. Pitcher-shaped plants with slippery coatings are death traps for animals that slide inside. Water-dwelling plants can even use suction to slurp up their victims. These adaptations and others make these plants surprisingly skilled, stealthy hunters.

Want to know more? We’ve got some stories to get you started:

Well-known wildflower turns out to be a secret meat-eater A white-petaled flower called Triantha occidentalis isn’t as delicate as it seems. This secret meat-eater uses sticky hairs on its stem to snare insects to eat. (10/6/2021) Readability: 6.9

Meat-eating pitcher plants feast on baby salamanders Carnivorous plants often eat insects, but some have an appetite for bigger animals. These pitcher-shaped plants gulp down baby salamanders. (9/27/2019) Readability: 7.3

Ants on guard Some insects have outsmarted plants that might eat them. In Southeast Asia, diving ants can walk around the slippery rim of a pitcher plant without falling in — or climb out if they lose their footing. (11/15/2013) Readability: 6.0

The hunters of the plant kingdom seize their prey in a variety of devious ways.

Explore more

Scientists Say: Enzyme

Scientists Say: Amphibian

Explainer: How photosynthesis works

Venus flytraps tend not to eat their pollinators

A robot made with a Venus flytrap can grab fragile objects

The plant world has some true speed demons

Activities

Word find

Despite being deadly pitfalls for any creatures that stumble inside, pitcher plants are surprisingly beautiful. Make your own using household materials. Or craft a model of the poster child for carnivorous plants, the Venus flytrap.

Maria Temming is the assistant editor at Science News for Students. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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