Snap!

How can the Venus flytrap indulge its taste for insect flesh? The secret is the cunning construction of its leaves.

Venus Flytrap

Venus flytrap catches insects with a modified leaf. In the initial state (left), the two halves of the leaf curve away from each other. But a landing insect triggers the two halves to rotate slowly toward each other, making their convex curvature unstable. Suddenly, in about a tenth of a second, the curvature of the two halves becomes concave (right), the leaves snap shut, and the insect is trapped.

Ian Worpole

Although plants are firmly rooted in the ground, they do move: sunflowers track the Sun across the sky; daffodils turn their floral faces away from the wind as it blows. Most plant motion is either quite slow (the sunflower), or driven by external factors (the wind on the daffodil). Herbal hustle caused by internal forces is uncommon. That’s no surprise, really: plants have neither nerves nor muscles, nor do they have other obvious mechanisms for generating force rapidly.

Yet despite the lack of muscle, several plant lineages have independently evolved some capacity for rapid movement. The trigger plants of Australia, for instance, slap a dab of pollen on visiting bees. More morbidly, the Venus flytrap slams two halves of a leaf shut on nutritious insects. Recently, investigators discovered that the flytrap owes its quick grasp to a “bistable configuration” of its leaves, whereby small movements can trigger much larger ones.

The Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula) is native to verdant, boggy coastal plains of North and South Carolina. Bogs are more acidic and have fewer nutrients than most plants can tolerate, and so it’s no coincidence that several bog plants supplement their root-gathered nutrition with insect snacks. That makes a bog into a minefield for winged and walking arthropods. Bladderworts, pitcher plants, and sundews all indulge their carnivorous tastes. Among those refugees from the Little Shop of Insect Horrors, though, the flytrap has a uniquely dynamic method for catching prey.

The flytrap features a set of inch-long, heart-shaped capture leaves, each fringed with trigger hairs and bisected by a deep fold. Any insect unwary enough to bend a single hair is a goner. The two halves of the leaf snap shut along its fold in just 100 milliseconds, swiftly enveloping the animal. The trigger hairs become the bars of a prison. In the ensuing few hours the trap seals itself airtight, and digestive glands in the leaf secrete enzymes that reduce the insect to a dry husk.

Botanists discovered the Venus flytrap several hundred years ago, and its behavior has fascinated people ever since. It may come as a surprise, then, that until recently no one knew how a flytrap, unthinking and without muscles, could move fast enough to capture flies. The mystery prompted Yoël Forterre, a physicist at the University of Provence in Marseille, France, and his colleagues to take up the case.

To improve visibility, the team began by daubing flytrap leaves with dots of paint that glows under ultraviolet light. Then they shot videos of the leaves closing, at 400 frames per second (a somewhat smaller video file, showing the action at 125 frames per second is available online at www.nature.com/nature/journal/v433/n7024/suppinfo/nature03185.html). Watching the videos in slow motion, and tracing the path of each painted dot in three dimensions, the investigators discovered that what appears to be a quick, fluid snap of the two halves of the leaf is actually a three-phase process.

In its initial, open configuration, the capture leaf looks like a paperback book that has been splayed open by breaking its binding, and further insulted by bending its spine into an arc. The two halves of the leaf also curve away from each other; if you were to see them from the hapless insect’s point of view, they would appear to be convex, with the center of each leaf toward you and the edges curving away.

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