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Venus flytrap can track prey, study suggests

Joe Napsha
| Friday, January 22, 2016 9:45 p.m
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AFP/Getty Images
A Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula) with a captured insect is displayed during the opening of the exhibition of carnivorous plants at La Reserva biopark in the municipality of Cota, outskirts of Bogota. (GUILLERMO LEGARIA/AFP/Getty Images photo)
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BERLIN, GERMANY - JULY 20: A Venus fly trap consumes a dead fly as it sits on display at a presentation of carnivorous plants at the Berlin-Dahlem Botanical Garden on July 20, 2013 in Berlin, Germany. Carnivorous plants derive most of their nutrients by consuming animals, most commonly flying, foraging, or crawling insects, and have adapted to grow in places where the soil does not contain enough nutrients for them to survive. (Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images)
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BERLIN, GERMANY - JULY 20: A Venus fly traps sit on display at a presentation of carnivorous plants at the Berlin-Dahlem Botanical Garden on July 20, 2013 in Berlin, Germany. Carnivorous plants derive most of their nutrients by consuming animals, most commonly flying, foraging, or crawling insects, and have adapted to grow in places where the soil does not contain enough nutrients for them to survive. (Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images)

Carnivorous plants are inherently kind of creepy.

But a new study published this week in Cell Biology really cranks that creepiness up to 11. According to this research, the Venus flytrap can … count?

“The carnivorous plant Dionaea muscipula, also known as Venus flytrap, can count how often it has been touched by an insect visiting its capture organ to trap and consume the animal prey,” study author Rainer Hedrich of the University of Wurzburg said in a statement.

Plants don’t have brains, so the Venus flytrap doesn’t do anything that we’d recognize as “counting,” in a cognitive sense. But according to the study, the plant somehow keeps track of the number of times it’s touched, which allows it to react appropriately to its prey.

When the scientists probed at their plants with mechano-electric pulses, they found that one touch set the flytraps into high-alert mode — but didn’t plant’s part. If a second touch happened within a few seconds, the trap snaps partially shut.

It only shuts all the way after more touches, and the fifth touch triggered the release of digestive enzymes. After that, more touches mean more digestive enzymes. This allows the plant to expend just enough energy to successfully subdue and consume its prey. A bigger, livelier insect will get more attention than a weak bug.

“The number of action potentials informs ⅛the plant⅜ about the size and nutrient content of the struggling prey,” Hedrich said in a statement. “This allows the Venus flytrap to balance the cost and benefit of hunting.”

Or, in the words of The Atlantic’s Ed Yong: “The plant apportions its digestive efforts according to the struggles of its prey. And the fly, by fighting for its life, tells the plant to start killing it, and how vigorously to do so.”

So if you ever find yourself in a nightmarishly huge Venus flytrap (you won’t, that’s silly) try not to struggle. Or, alternatively, if the trap has already shut fully on you, fight valiantly to ensure that your death is as swift as possible.

The researchers hope to learn more about the mechanism behind this counting by sequencing the plant’s genome.

Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff reporter. You can contact Joe at 724-836-5252, jnapsha@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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