April 11, 2011
You might think that a plant that eats things should be able to take care of itself, but the sad fact is that more than half of the carnivorous plant species evaluated by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) are listed as either vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered. A new study in the journal Biological Conservation examined the threats faced by 48 species of these plants and provides some insight into what’s going on.
Many of the threats are familiar to anyone who has been following the tales of species declines—habitat loss due to the expansion of agriculture tops the list, and pollution and modification of natural systems (such as fire suppression) were also big factors. But carnivorous plants faced another, almost unique threat—that of poaching. Pitcher plants and Venus flytraps are the most likely types to be affected by collectors, the researchers found. “Even though there are good alternatives, such as growing them in greenhouses or labs, people who are after a quick fix will just go out and take them because it can take several years for the plants to reach a decent size,” study co-author David Jennings, of the University of South Florida, told the BBC News.
The scale of the poaching can be devastating, as Smithsonian documented last year in “The Venus Flytrap’s Lethal Allure“:
Always rare, the flytrap is now in danger of becoming the mythical creature it sounds as if it should be. In and around North Carolina’s Green Swamp, poachers uproot them from protected areas as well as private lands, where they can be harvested only with an owner’s permission. The plants have such shallow roots that some poachers dig them up with butcher knives or spoons, often while wearing camouflage and kneepads (the plants grow in such convenient clumps that flytrappers, as they’re called, barely have to move). Each pilfered plant sells for about 25 cents. The thieves usually live nearby, though occasionally there’s an international connection: customs agents at Baltimore-Washington International Airport once intercepted a suitcase containing 9,000 poached flytraps bound for the Netherlands, where they presumably would have been propagated or sold. The smuggler, a Dutchman, carried paperwork claiming the plants were Christmas ferns.
Carnivorous plants aren’t just weird, wacky and wonderful, but they also have important roles in their ecosystems. The loss of a carnivorous plant could easily lead to the extirpation of other creatures that rely on them (there are some species of pitcher plants, for example, that are refuges for amphibians). These plants can be incredibly useful to us, too, since they consume human pests, such as midges and deerflies, that can carry disease. And in my view, anything that eats those damn mosquitoes that devour me in summer is worth preserving.
So I hope you’ll take the scientists’ research to heart, and if you see a carnivorous plant in the wild, leave it alone.
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