The Venus flytrap is a small plant whose structure can be described as a rosette of four to seven leaves, which arise from a short subterranean stem that is actually a bulb-like object. Each stem reaches a maximum size of about three to ten centimeters, depending on the time of year; longer leaves with robust traps are usually formed after flowering. Flytraps that have more than 7 leaves are colonies formed by rosettes that have divided beneath the ground.
The leaf blade is divided into two regions: a flat, heart-shaped photosynthesis-capable petiole, and a pair of terminal lobes hinged at the midrib, forming the trap which is the true leaf. The upper surface of these lobes contains red anthocyanin pigments and its edges secrete mucilage. The lobes exhibit rapid plant movements, snapping shut when stimulated by prey. The trapping mechanism is tripped when prey contacts one of the three hair-like trichomes that are found on the upper surface of each of the lobes. The trapping mechanism is so specialized that it can distinguish between living prey and non-prey stimuli such as falling raindrops; two trigger hairs must be touched in succession within 20 seconds of each other or one hair touched twice in rapid succession, whereupon the lobes of the trap will snap shut in about one-tenth of a second.The edges of the lobes are fringed by stiff hair-like protrusions or cilia, which mesh together and prevent large prey from escaping. (These protrusions, and the trigger hairs, also known as sensitive hairs, are probably homologous with the tentacles found in this plant’s close relatives, thesundews.) Scientists have concluded that the Venus flytrap is closely related to Drosera (sundews), and that the snap trap evolved from a fly-paper trap similar to that of Drosera.
The holes in the meshwork allow small prey to escape, presumably because the benefit that would be obtained from them would be less than the cost of digesting them. If the prey is too small and escapes, the trap will reopen within 12 hours. If the prey moves around in the trap, it tightens and digestion begins more quickly.
Speed of closing can vary depending on the amount of humidity, light, size of prey, and general growing conditions. The speed with which traps close can be used as an indicator of a plant’s general health. Venus flytraps are not as humidity-dependent as are some other carnivorous plants, such as Nepenthes, Cephalotus, most Heliamphora, and some Drosera.
The Venus flytrap is one of a very small group of plants capable of rapid movement, such as Mimosa, theTelegraph plant, sundews and bladderworts.
The mechanism by which the trap snaps shut involves a complex interaction between elasticity, turgor and growth. In the open, untripped state, the lobes are convex (bent outwards), but in the closed state, the lobes are concave (forming a cavity). It is the rapid flipping of this bistable state that closes the trap, but the mechanism by which this occurs is still poorly understood. When the trigger hairs are stimulated, an action potential (mostly involving calcium ions—see calcium in biology) is generated, which propagates across the lobes and stimulates cells in the lobes and in the midrib between them. It is hypothesized that there is a threshold of ion buildup for the Venus flytrap to react to stimulation. The acid growth theory states that individual cells in the outer layers of the lobes and midrib rapidly move hydrogen ions into their cell walls, lowering the pH and loosening the extracellular components, which allows them to swell rapidly by osmosis, thus elongating and changing the shape of the trap lobe. Alternatively, cells in the inner layers of the lobes and midrib may rapidly secrete other ions, allowing water to follow by osmosis, and the cells to collapse. Both of these mechanisms may play a role and have some experimental evidence to support them.
The Venus flytrap is found in nitrogen- and phosphorus-poor environments, such as bogs and wet savanna’s. Small in stature and slow growing, the Venus flytrap tolerates fire well, and depends on periodic burning to suppress its competition. Fire suppression threatens its future in the wild. It survives in wet sandy and peaty soils. Although it has been successfully transplanted and grown in many locales around the world, it is found natively only in North and South Carolina in the United States, specifically within a 60-mile radius of Wilmington, North Carolina. One such place is North Carolina’s Green Swamp. There also appears to be a naturalized population of Venus flytraps in northern Florida as well as an introduced population in western Washington. The nutritional poverty of the soil is the reason that the plant relies on such elaborate traps: insect prey provide the nitrogen for protein formation that the soil cannot. The Venus flytrap is not a tropical plant and can tolerate mild winters. In fact, Venus flytraps that do not go through a period of winter dormancy will weaken and die after a period of time.
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