Why does this plant become carnivorous from time to time?

This liana is the only known plant capable of developing hook-shaped insect trap leaves when needed.

Many animals eat plants, but it’s easy to forget that, in one way or another, all plants eat animals. The droppings and decaying bodies of animals are essential for most plants, but some plants have decided, over the course of evolution, to skip this step and eat animals directly. Everyone knows the flytrap with its fang-like leaves with teeth.

A liana, the hook-leaf or trifoliate (Triphyophyllum peltatum), a climbing plant found exclusively in some West African rainforests and grows vines up to 70 meters long. This plant, unlike others, becomes carnivorous only if necessary.

The plant develops shoots several meters long with hooks for climbing the trunks of other trees. When it enters the carnivorous phase, it develops hook-shaped leaves that secrete sticky droplets with which it captures insects, which are digested with special enzymes. The transformation of the hooked leaf into a carnivorous species is so far unique in the plant world, but the trigger for this phenomenon has hardly been investigated until now.

For the first time, the researchers were able to grow the liana in a greenhouse and thus observe its unusual behavior more closely. The plant was exposed to various stress factors, including deficiencies in various nutrients, to study how it reacted in each case. Scientists at the Institute for Horticultural Production Systems at the University of Hannover, Germany, found only one case where trap formation was observed: when there was phosphorus deficiency. The phosphorus restriction was enough for the liana to become a carnivorous plant.

The sticky droplets on the tentacles are probably the largest of all carnivorous plants and allow them to retain and digest even relatively large insects. In its original habitat in the African rainforests on nutrient-poor soils, the Triphyophyllum peltatum you can avoid the threat of malnutrition by capturing and digesting insects in your traps, thus obtaining the important nutrient. The results of the study were published in the journal New Phytologist.

The hook vine is also of great interest for medical-pharmaceutical research: for example, researchers are studying whether certain ingredients in the vine may be effective against pancreatic cancer, leukemia or malaria.


Carnivory on demand: phosphorus deficiency induces glandular leaves in the African liana Triphyophyllum peltatum

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