When you think of carnivores, you probably picture tigers, lions, wolves, or some other animal with big teeth and sharp claws. According to a study from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, tomato plants now belong on that list of fearsome carnivores.
That’s because researchers at the world-famous garden have discovered that some varieties of tomato plants (as well as some petunias and potato plants) can catch and digest small bugs. The plants use sticky hairs on their stems to trap crawling insects. After the critters die and fall into the soil, the plants use their roots to absorb the bug’s nutrients.
Professor Mark Chase, the lead author of the study, told ScienceDaily, “Although a man-eating tree is fictional, many commonly grown plants may turn out to be cryptic carnivores, at least by absorbing through their roots the breakdown products of the animals that they ensnare. We may be surrounded by many more murderous plants than we think.”
We get it if this slow-motion capture and absorption of prey isn’t exciting enough for you to call plants carnivores.
However, in the wild, plants use this mechanism to survive in soil that doesn’t provide enough nutrients. Even if a tomato plant’s fatal move doesn’t terrify us as much as a 1,000-pound grizzly bear, we have to admit that it’s a fascinating adaptation.
In the wild, a small advantage can mean the difference between extinction and survival. The tomato plant’s carnivorous adaptation may be the reason that the species still exists.
“We suspect in the domesticated varieties they are getting plenty of food through the roots from us so don’t get much benefit from trapping insects,” said Chase. “In the wild, they could be functioning in the way that could properly be considered carnivorous.”
This new view of tomato plants came after researchers reconsidered the qualities that make a plant carnivorous.
Botanists have long known about carnivorous plants such as the Venus flytrap and pitcher plants. These unusual species trap and digest protozoans and small animals (usually insects) with more active methods.
In spite of the tomato plant’s passive method of dispatching prey, the researchers at Kew believe that it and hundreds of more plants should fall into the carnivorous category.
The identification of carnivorous plants makes some people uncomfortable.
Chase explained the sense of discomfort that carnivorous plants cause. “We are accustomed to
We admit that the thought of murderous plants is slightly unnerving, but we’re not ready to replace our fear of sharks and bears with a fear of petunias and tomatoes. Still, hearing Chase describe the macabre world of plants gives us a newfound respect for the fiercely competitive natural world.