Foraging modes of carnivorous plants

In: Israel Journal of Ecology and Evolution
Aaron M. Ellison Harvard Forest, Harvard University, 324 North Main Street, Petersham, Massachusetts, 01366, USA

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Carnivorous plants are pure sit-and-wait predators: they remain rooted to a single location and depend on the abundance and movement of their prey to obtain nutrients required for growth and reproduction. Yet carnivorous plants exhibit phenotypically plastic responses to prey availability that parallel those of non-carnivorous plants to changes in light levels or soil-nutrient concentrations. The latter have been considered to be foraging behaviors, but the former have not. Here, I review aspects of foraging theory that can be profitably applied to carnivorous plants considered as sit-and-wait predators. A discussion of different strategies by which carnivorous plants attract, capture, kill, and digest prey, and subsequently acquire nutrients from them suggests that optimal foraging theory can be applied to carnivorous plants as easily as it has been applied to animals. Carnivorous plants can vary their production, placement, and types of traps; switch between capturing nutrients from leaf-derived traps and roots; temporarily activate traps in response to external cues; or cease trap production altogether. Future research on foraging strategies by carnivorous plants will yield new insights into the physiology and ecology of what Darwin called “the most wonderful plants in the world”. At the same time, inclusion of carnivorous plants into models of animal foraging behavior could lead to the development of a more general and taxonomically inclusive foraging theory.

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