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What is a Pitfall Trap?

A close look at a nepenthe carnivorous plant.

Learn all about the rare carnivorous plants that use the pitfall trap to acquire prey, their characteristics, what they eat, and the places where they live.

In the article 5 Types of Carnivorous Plants and How They Trap, we discuss exactly how these extraordinarily adaptive plants actually trap their prey. Carnivorous plants are very varying in where they choose to live and how they function.

There are 5 different ways that carnivorous plants trap: flypaper traps, snap traps, suction taps, lobster pot traps, and pitfall traps. Right now we’re going to look into two types of carnivorous plants that employ the pitfall trap method: The Cobra Lily and The Attenborough Pitcher Plant.

But first…

Related: Flypaper Trap | Snap Trap | Bladderwort | Corkscrew Plants

A Brief Explanation of Carnivorous Plants

Carnivorous plants ended up that way due to the need to adapt to incredibly low-nutrient environments. They exist in water or very waterlogged soils, bogs, and fens.

Most carnivorous plants absorb their nutrients from their prey alone, and none from the soil or water they live in. This adaptation resulted in many carnivorous plants living without a root system.

A close look at a tropical carnivorous plant with a pitcher-like shape.

Carnivorous plants can also be classified as insectivorous, due to the fact that the vast majority of what they eat are insects and small invertebrates, and protozoans (single-cell microorganisms that exist in water). The types of carnivorous plants that digest small rodents and other mammals come equipped with bladders large enough to do so. Which brings me to…

The Attenborough Pitcher Plant

Nepenthes Attenboroughii

I’m sure you may recognize that last name, and yes, this carnivorous plant was named after David Attenborough himself. A man who has been passionate about wildlife for all of his life, this plant was named after him not due to his discovery of it, but because of his curiosity about it.

A close look at a carnivorous plant with a pitfall trap.

The Attenborough Pitcher Plant is in the list of Top 10 Rarest Plants in the World and is classified as being critically endangered.

Where it Can Be Found

The Attenborough Pitcher Plant is found strictly in one area on earth, meaning that this species is endemic to one location. This occurs in the Victoria Massif of Palawan (which is a small island off of the Philippines). It will only grow 1450 meters above sea level, and only amidst shrubbery less than 1.8 meters tall, in particularly rocky soil.

A look at the tropical island of Coron in the Philippines.

Characteristics

  • the Attenborough Pitcher plant can grow up to a staggering 1.5 meters tall (making it the largest carnivorous plant in existence)
  • the plant’s pitcher (or bladder) can hold up to 2.1 quarts of liquid
  • its leaf is usually a psychedelic pattern of green, purple, and brown streaks
  • this plant shows sexual dimorphism, meaning that males and females look significantly different from one another

How it Works

The Attenborough Pitcher Plant sports exciting colors to attract its prey, as well as enticing smelling nectar that fills its bladder. The entire plant resembles a water pitcher, the leaf being the body of the vessel. The opening of the pitcher, as well as the interior walls, are very slippery, so once prey falls in it does not have a chance of escaping. Hence, the pitfall trap.

A look at the pitcher plant with a large wasp about to be trapped.

Once the prey falls into the pitcher, it will soon discover it is actually in a stomach, and that it is swimming in the plant’s digestive juices. It will drown and be slowly digested by the Attenborough Pitcher Plant.

What it Eats

The pitcher plants are the carnivorous plants large enough to ingest small mammals. This includes mice, rats, and other rodents. They will also eat any size of insects or anything that will fall into their trap.

A large carnivorous pitcher plant.

The Cobra Lily

Darlingtonia Californica

The Cobra Lily is another stunning example of the pitcher plant. The body is appropriately named, as it resembles that of a cobra waiting to strike. Fun fact about the Cobra Lily: researchers still have no idea how the Cobra Lily pollinates!

A close look at a cobra lily.

The Cobra Lily is not so rare as the Attenborough Pitcher Plant, but it’s rare just the same. They require a very strict environment and are quite unique from other kinds of carnivorous plants.

Where it Can Be Found

This is a look at a marsh landscape.

Another rather particular carnivorous plant, the Cobra Lily is only found in certain areas of California and Oregon. It exists in bogs and seeps that have two things: highly nutrient-rich soil (which is rather rare for carnivorous plants) and cold running water.

Characteristics

A close look at a cobra lily.

  • the average height of the Cobra Lily is around 33 inches
  • the plant is a stalkless hollow leaf shaped like a pitcher that is light green with vein-like red streaks decorating the body (kind of like blood veins! Spooky!)
  • near the entryway of the pitcher exists a strange purply appendage, that resembles a snakes tongue
  • the Cobra Lily draws water from its roots, when almost all other carnivorous pitcher plants receive strictly rainwater
  • the Cobra Lily is one of the only carnivorous plants with a root system

How it Works

It’s the exact same function as the Attenborough Pitcher Plant. Enticing colors and sweet-smelling nectar attract insects and animals to the plant. They slip inside the bladder and are slowly digested by the digestive enzymes in the nectar.

A cluster of cobra lily that lures insects.

What it Eats

The Cobra Lily is also large enough to ingest small mammals. Rats, mice, lizards, and insects are all part of its diet.

FAQ

Can pitcher plants live indoors?

All carnivorous plants require very precise environments and it would be difficult and unfair to try and grow one indoors. That being said, the Sundew carnivorous plant exists almost anywhere and can live inside as long as it’s constantly misted.

Are pitcher plants poisonous?

No, they are not. The liquid inside their bladder is essentially stomach acid. They are lethal to creatures small enough to be digested by them.

Are pitcher plants endangered?

They most certainly are. All pitcher plants are within the top 10 most endangered plants list.

Why do pitcher plants eat insects?

This was a way that plants adapted to nutrient low environments. They figured out a way to access all of the other food that other creatures had access to.

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