Glacier's bugcatchers 

Sticking it to insects, one dewdrop at a time

Is there a kid in the world whose eyes don't light up at the mention of a carnivorous plant? I must have gone through five Venus flytraps growing up, those potted efforts found in the back of comic books amid ads for sea monkeys and X-ray glasses. Even the most reluctant young naturalist will warm to the idea of a plant that eats animals, standing the food chain on its head!

The popular flytraps are native only to the Carolinas, but other vegetable carnivores are found in all 50 states. Montana has two basic types: bladderworts, which capture small aquatic organisms using osmosis-powered vacuum sacs, and sundews, which snag insects and other small invertebrates with specialized leaves sparkling with sticky mucilage reminiscent of dewdrops. Hence the common name sundew, and the botanical name Drosera, from the Greek word for the same thing.

click to enlarge CHAD HARDER

Like all carnivorous plants, sundews evolved into bug-catchers to compensate for the nutrient-poor soils typical to the swampy environments they prefer. In Glacier National Park, sundews form thick, mossy mats in "fens," essentially bog-like areas with low acidity soils—and no shortage of insects, either. To compensate for its poorly-developed root system, the sundew instead relies on its gracile, highly specialized leaves to acquire, from captured bugs, the nitrogen necessary for manufacturing proteins. One set of glands produces the sweetish mucilage and digestive enzymes while a second set absorbs the forthcoming "nutrient soup" of dissolved insect.

Alas, sundews in Montana—and worldwide—are under increasing pressure as human activities encroach on their habitat. Carnivorous plant communities are fragile and intimately tied to specific locales, and once they've been removed from the landscape they have proven nearly impossible to restore. That's relevant to you, because while a single sundew couldn't possibly put a dent in mosquito numbers, entire colonies of them clearly do. In one study, scientists found that a resident Drosera population snared as many as six million insects in its tiny tentacles, all in a two-acre bog.

That sounds like six million reasons to make sure carnivorous plants are with us for years to come, and tells me that the best encounter with a rare sundew—and not only if you're a bug—may be no encounter at all.

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