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Published: March 2010

Carnivorous Plants

Plant Red

Fatal Attraction

They lure insects into death traps, then gorge on their flesh. Is that any way for a plant to behave?

By Carl Zimmer
Photograph by Helene Schmitz

A hungry fly darts through the pines in North Carolina. Drawn by what seems like the scent of nectar from a flowerlike patch of scarlet on the ground, the fly lands on the fleshy pad of a ruddy leaf. It takes a sip of the sweet liquid oozing from the leaf, brushing a leg against one tiny hair on its surface, then another. Suddenly the fly's world has walls around it. The two sides of the leaf are closing against each other, spines along its edges interlocking like the teeth of a jaw trap. As the fly struggles to escape, the trap squeezes shut. Now, instead of offering sweet nectar, the leaf unleashes enzymes that eat away at the fly's innards, gradually turning them into goo. The fly has suffered the ultimate indignity for an animal: It has been killed by a plant.

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