Meat-Eating Plants

Plants seem like passive creatures of fate – stuck in the ground, blowing in the wind, soaking in sunlight and serving as food for the insect and animal worlds. It comes as a shock to discover that not only are they eaten, but they also eat.

Yes, we’re talking about flesh-eating plants!

From Venus flytraps to cobra lilies, the weird world of carnivorous plants is remarkable. The existence of carnivorous plants was not even suspected by scientists until researchers climbed Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia in 1858. There they found an incredible plant that grew leaves formed into the shape of a pitcher with a strange liquid at its bottom. When biologists studied these pitcher plants, they were astounded to find a partially digested rat in one of them. The discovery triggered a sensation. Most European scientists flatly disbelieved the story. A few years later, a world-renowned researcher carried out a study confirming the reality of flesh-eating plants. Now they have identified almost 700 species of carnivorous plants across the globe.

It’s mind-boggling that plants employ strategic defense mechanisms (as discussed in some of my previous articles, such as “Survival of the Pittest” and “What Plants Talk About”). However, carnivorous plants go beyond that. They’re not satisfied merely driving away unwanted visitors. They go on the offensive. They lure, entice and invite guests in the most ingenious ways – albeit with nefarious intentions.

Defies Logic…and Science

That carnivorous plants exist at all defies logic. Who told brainless plants that insects even exist? And who taught them that they could become part of their diet? Who taught them how to catch them and how did plants acquire the extremely complex mechanisms necessary to do so? Finally, how did they know they could digest their victims to benefit from their nutritional value, and how did they develop the ability to do so?

The way carnivorous plants have turned the tables on herbivores, eating living creatures instead of being eaten by them, has long baffled the world’s greatest botanists. In 1942, Francis Ernest Lloyd, author of The Carnivorous Plants – a major, scholarly, authoritative classic on the subject – wrote regarding the origin of carnivorous plants: “How the highly specialized organs of capture could have evolved seems to defy our present knowledge.”

In 1965, another botanist, Claude Wilson Wardlaw, echoed Lloyd’s sentiments, writing about flora in general: “Special adaptive features such as those exemplified by the plants of special habitats, climbing plants, insectivorous plants, the numerous cunning floral arrangements that ensure cross-pollination, and so on virtually ad libitum, seem to the writer to be difficult to account for adequately in terms of a sequence of small random variations, and natural selection.”

Carnivorous plants are nothing short of amazing. And the more one studies them, the more amazing they become.

The Venus Flytrap

The most famous of them is the Venus flytrap. When Darwin first saw it, he was amazed. He marveled at “the rapidity and force of its movements,” and he declared it “one of the most wonderful plants in the world.”

Think about it. Insects are quick to get away. Have you ever tried catching one? It’s difficult even with a fly swatter. Yet, the Venus flytrap is fast enough to catch them. And it almost never misses. It just snaps its mouth closed and boom! Fly dinner.

The plant looks innocent enough on the outside, sporting two green leaves that look clam-like. The inside of the leaf is reddish, a perfect color to attract insects. It’s also scented with nectar. Attracted to the nectar, an insect lands on the open leaf expecting a meal – having no idea that it’s about to become a meal!

Along the inside of the red, scented center of the leaf are tiny trigger hairs. If the insect touches one of them, it won’t close. If the wind blows on it, it won’t close. But if two of the trigger hairs are touched, the plant immediately snaps shut in one-third of a second, far too fast for an insect to recognize the danger.

The fact that the leaf closes so fast is remarkable, but the victim could easily escape if not for another necessary feature of the trap. Studded along the upper and lower edges of the “clam shell” leaf are soft, thin, teeth-like protrusions. When these close, they interlock like interlocking fingers — like jail bars.

The Venus flytrap is a picky eater. There’s enough room between its teethy protrusions to allow tiny bugs to leave. Apparently, the smallest insects are of no interest to the flytrap, since they don’t provide sufficient nutrition. If the flytrap senses that there is nothing in the trap, such as if the prey has escaped, or that it has caught something it cannot digest, it will reopen several hours later and try again.

Once an eligible insect is trapped, the leaves close completely so no air can get inside. Of course, what use is a trapped meal if it can’t be digested? But the Venus flytrap secretes digestive juices so it can absorb the nourishment from its prey, a process that can take as long as ten days. Afterward, the leaves reopen, with nothing but small fragments of the insect remaining, which are quickly blown away by the wind.

Recent research has found that the Venus flytrap is even creepier. If an insect is caught and just waits without moving, the next morning the flytrap will open and it can leave. Only if it panics does the deadly cycle of disintegration commence. This is because the Venus flytraps can actually count. One touch of the hairs and nothing happens. Two touches and the trap springs closed in a fraction of a second. Three touches and the plant starts producing digestive juices. The fifth touch then releases the plant’s digestive enzymes into the leaf. The more touches the trigger hairs receive, the more enzymes are produced. A struggling insect will trigger some 50 reactions. The greater the struggle, the more the trap squeezes tighter and tighter, as if knowing it has a stronger prey. The more an insect tries to escape, the more it’s telling the plant to eat it alive. Ultimately, the squeezing presses the insect against the digestive juices, also allowing more efficient uptake of nutrients.

Much More Than a “Modified Leaf”

Darwin’s followers dubbed the Venus flytrap “a modified leaf.” It’s much more than that. It’s even more than just an ingenious fly-catcher. It is an uncannily designed, optimized, efficient, elegant complex entity coordinating extremely complex processes to maintain its carnivorous lifestyle.

The irreducible complexity of a Venus flytrap is a particular thorn in the side of evolutionists, who struggle to explain how it could have developed through unguided processes. If any of its parts were missing, it would have been unfit to survive. It needs its alluring colors and scent, a sophisticated hinge mechanism that snaps shut unbelievably fast, hairs to trigger the mechanism which can instantaneously communicate with the trap-blades, the ability to count trigger-hair movement, teeth-like thorns to lock the insect in, a digestive system to benefit nutritionally, enzymes that digest only the prey and not the leaf, and the intelligence to refuse to reopen the trap of several days until the insect has been digested, after which it opens of itself and awaits another insect.

All that had to exist at one time or the plant would never have functioned properly. How could all those parts – and parts of parts – develop and be passed on in an unguided process over long periods of time? It’s an inescapable conundrum for evolutionists, as some of the greatest botanists have admitted.

Sundew

Another popular flesh-eating plant is the sundew, which catches its prey using a method similar to flypaper. Its name comes from the appearance of the sticky secretions at the ends of its tentacles that resemble drops of dew that shine in the early morning sun.

Mistaking the dew for a delicious meal, insects land on the sundew and find themselves caught in its sticky mucus. As the prey fights to free itself, the surrounding tentacles bend toward it. The more the insect struggles to get away, the more the surrounding hairs curl over. Soon the insect becomes fully coated with this glue-like slime. Within half an hour, the plant will have the victim completely surrounded. One type of sundew can bend itself 180° in just one minute!

Unlike the Venus flytrap, sundew victims aren’t eaten alive but suffocate in the sticky dew. Again, the sundew’s predatory mechanism is so advanced that it differentiates between edible and non-edible items. When a pebble falls on a sundew, the plant does not respond at all.

This sundew is no accident of nature. It’s a sophisticated insect-catching device. It, too, somehow knows that there are insects that exist, that insects can be lured in with a nectar-like substance, that if the substance is sticky like glue it can capture its prey, that its victim can be suffocated, that its victim is going to try to get away, that it needs to secrete digestive juices to digest its prey, and that not all parts are digestible; the sundew only digests the good and leaves over the inedible parts, such as the wings, the outer skeleton and other hard parts of little nutritional value.

Pitcher Plants

Another carnivorous plant that has scientists confounded is the pitcher plant. Whereas the Venus flytrap catches insects with a lightning fast spring mechanism, the sundew encases and suffocates its prey with a sticky glue-like substance, the pitcher plant lures its victims and drowns them.

It does this because, as its name suggests, it’s shaped like a water pitcher, which gathers rainwater that insects love to drink. Except that it’s not plain rainwater. It contains juices that digest the unsuspecting insects that fall in. (The pitcher plant grows a leaf shaped like the cover over the water pitcher to prevent too much rainwater from falling in and diluting its “gastric” juices.)

Like other carnivorous plants, pitcher plants deceive and then kill. A tropical pitcher plant smells sweet to bugs, which are also attracted to the pitcher plant by its bright colors. Once they enter the pitcher, the bugs have unsuspectingly entered a trap. Each pitcher plant has its own variation to trick the insects. Some use low doses of narcotics at the mouth of the pitcher to disorient the flies. They then enter looking for the nectar and fall to the bottom where they drown (the plant knows its prey can drown!) and get digested.

Other pitchers are covered by a slippery wax, so that insects that approach the opening slip inside. Below the ledge are stiff dagger-like hairs that face downward into the pitcher. When an unsuspecting insect lands, it slips on the wax and slides right down the chute, like a sliding pond. (How did this plant know that insects have hooks on their legs that allow them to hold onto all types of surfaces, except specially designed waxy ones?)

Of course, the insect doesn’t give up. It tries to crawl up the slippery walls, but there is a built-in barricade: those stiff, downward-pointed, dagger-like hairs. Eventually, exhausted from its struggle, the insect sinks to the bottom. The bad news for the bug is that the pitcher plant, as its name suggests, has collected rainwater in its pitcher, which conveniently drowns the insect. Of course, this plant, too, digests its victims. Instead of dining on the pitcher’s sweet nectar, the plant unleashes enzymes that eat away at the insect’s innards, gradually turning them into goo.

The cobra lily, also known as the California pitcher plant, can be found in California and Oregon. It’s called the cobra lily because of the shape of its leaves. Large, bulbous and curling over, they seem to resemble a cobra preparing to strike, complete with dangling leaves that look like a snake’s forked tongue.

This pitcher plant is a little different from the others and does not use a pitfall trap. Rather, it boasts a lobster pot trap, meaning that it’s easy to get in but impossible to get out. Once again drawn in by the smell of something tasty, downwards pointing hairs lead insects toward the gathered liquid at the base of the pitcher where they then drown. Unlike the other pitcher plants, cobra lilies do not seem to excrete their own digestive enzymes, but rather rely on bacteria to break their prey down for them.

Bladderworts

Spread across every continent except Antarctica, there are more than 220 species of bladderworts. These plants don’t rely on the scent of their nectar to attract prey. Rather, they lay in wait, ready to spring their traps as soon as their prey moves close enough.

The bladderwort’s bright yellow orchid-like flowers sway gently atop wiry stems, and beneath the water’s surface they have many trailing stems, called stolons, covered with feathery foliage and distinctive bladder structures on both the leaves and stems. Originally, these bladders were thought to act as flotation devices for the plants, but scientists discovered that they are actually vacuums to suck insects in. The vacuum activity of the plant’s bladder chambers, which sit in the water, is an extremely quick process. First, an insect brushes against trigger hairs that are connected to a trap door. The door is then mechanically triggered and sucks the prey and surrounding water into the bladder. Unbelievably, the bladderwort does it all with over 600 G’s of force, trapping its prey in less than a millisecond. That’s faster than you can blink. Once the bladder is full, the trapdoor closes, the insect is ingested and then the whole process starts over again.

(A carnivorous plant with a similar name is the butterwort. But don’t let the name fool you. Butterworts don’t operate in the same way as bladderworts. Instead, they are similar to a sundew, employing a simple flypaper trap. Found throughout North and South America, Europe and Asia, this succulent plant has leaves that are a bright green or pinkish. These colorful leaves designed to attract insects contain two types of cells, one that produces sticky mucus and the other that produces the plant’s digestive enzymes, trapping and eating its prey where it lies.)

Doubting Darwin

Charles Darwin famously offered the following suggestion as to how his theory could be falsified: “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed that could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.” Any of these carnivorous plants, each of which employ a wide array of complicated traps and each of which were clearly useless until almost perfect, would seem to fit the bill.

However, compounding the problem for Darwinists, they admit that at least six of the major classifications of carnivorous plants came to be completely independent of each other. In other words, “the highly specialized organs of capture” that Francis Ernest Lloyd said “defy our present knowledge” evolved not just once in history, not just two or three or four or five times, but at least six times.

Darwinists invoke convergent evolution (the claim that complex adaptations can appear independently multiple times) to explain it away. Invoking the term doesn’t necessarily mean that they can explain how the astronomical improbabilities happened other times completely independently, but even if they did, it’s meaningless if their theories cannot explain the evolution of even one carnivorous species.

Calling the Venus flytrap “a modified leaf,” Rav Avigdor Miller writes, “is equivalent to calling a typewriter a modified pen.” Today, we can say it’s more like calling a sophisticated computer a modified pen. “A fly-catching plant,” he concludes, “like all the phenomena of the organic and inorganic world, fairly shouts purpose!”

Shouting purpose and design not only has philosophical implications, but practical implications for living – implications that are too terrible to contemplate for many people. But we shouldn’t let that stop us from stating the obvious with confidence. In countless ways, with infinite depth, the world screams that behind and beneath it all is an incomprehensible intelligence. “The heavens relate the glory of G-d, the sky tells of the work of His hands. Day to day utters speech and night to night conveys knowledge. There is no speech, there are no words, yet their voice is heard” (Tehillim 19:2-4). Heard loud and clear!