Scientists think 'Killer Petunias' should join the rank of carnivorous plants
Press release, December 2009
Scientists from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the Natural History Museum believe that carnivorous behaviour in plants is far more widespread than previously thought, with many commonly grown plants – such as petunias – at least part way to being “meat eaters”.
A review paper, Murderous plants: Victorian Gothic, Darwin and modern insights into vegetable carnivory, is published today (4 December 2009) in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society.
Carnivorous plants have caught the imagination of humans since ancient times, and they fitted well into the Victorian interest in Gothic horrors. Accounts of man-eating plants published in 19th century works have long since been discredited, but they continue to appear in different media including films (Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors) and books (Tentacula in the Harry Potter series). Even popular Japanese cartoon Pokémon includes some characters based on carnivorous plants (Bellsprout, Weepinbell and Victreebell).
- For more information on the Jodrell please click here
Carnivorous plants fascinated Charles Darwin, and he and his friend Sir Joseph Hooker (Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew at that time) had an extensive correspondence concerning them. Darwin 's book Insectivorous Plants played a critical role in the idea that plants could eat animals being generally accepted. Before this, many botanists (including Linnaeus) had refused to accept that this could be the case.
Since Darwin 's time, several groups have been generally recognised as carnivorous plants (including sundews, Venus flytraps and pitcher plants). Various other plants have been suggested as possible carnivores by some authors, but wide acceptance of these has failed to materialise. Defining what constitutes carnivory in plants is a challenge, and authors include or exclude groups of plants on the basis of different sets of criteria. Professor Mark Chase and co-authors from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the Natural History Museum contend that carnivory and non-carnivory should not be treated as a black and white situation, and they view plants as being on a sliding scale between those that show no carnivorous characteristics and those that are real “meat eaters” such as the Venus flytrap.
Plants like petunias and potatoes have sticky hairs that trap insects, and some species of campion have the common name catchfly for the same reason. However, some of the commonly accepted carnivores have not been demonstrated to have the ability to digest the insects they trap or to absorb the breakdown products. In their paper, Chase et al . review each of the groups of potential carnivores.
Professor Mark Chase , Keeper of the Jodrell Laboratory at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew says, “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.”
Vaughan Southgate, President of the Linnean Society of London says, “This scholarly, beautifully illustrated, review of carnivorous plants and the different levels of carnivory that exist in the plant world by botanists at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the Natural History Museum makes for fascinating reading.”
- Mike Fay, a co-author of the paper from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew , is available for interview. Please contact Bronwyn Friedlander, Bryony Phillips and Tarryn Barrowman in the Royal Botanic Gardens , Kew pr ess office on firstname.lastname@example.org or 020 8332 5605.
- Please contact the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew press office for a PDF of the paper, Murderous plants: Victorian Gothic, Darwin and modern insights into vegetable carnivory.
- Images are available to download from www.kew.org/ press/images. Please contact the Kew press office for the username and password.
- For more information about the December issue of the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society visit http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/121583649/grouphome/home.html
Notes to editors
The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is a world famous scientific organisation, internationally respected for its outstanding living collection of plants and world-class Herbarium as well as its scientific expertise in plant diversity, conservation and sustainable development in the UK and around the world. Kew Gardens is a major international visitor attraction. Its landscaped 132 hectares and RBG Kew's country estate, Wakehurst Place , attract nearly 2 million visitors every year. Kew was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2003 and celebrates its 250th anniversary in 2009. Wakehurst Place is home to Kew's Millennium Seed Bank, the largest wild plant seed bank in the world. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and its partners have collected and conserved seed from 10 per cent of the world's wild flowering plant species (c.30, 000 species). The aim is to conserve 25 per cent by 2020 and funds are being actively sought in order to continue this vital work.
The Linnean Society of London is the world's oldest active biological society. Founded in 1788, the Society takes its name from the great Swedish naturalist, Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) who developed the system of binominal nomenclature. This system today pr ovides the fundamental framework for knowledge of the biota of the Earth, supporting effective conservation measures and the sustainable use of biodiversity. The Society is the custodian of Linnaeus' original library and collections and is creating a digital archive, enabling full global access. It encourages and communicates scientific advances through its three world-class journals, open meetings and website. The Society's Fellowship is international and its Fellows are drawn from all walks of life including professional scientists and amateur naturalists. The Society welcomes anyone interested in natural history, in all its forms. www.linnean.org
The Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society is published on behalf of the Linnean Society of London and publishes original papers of relevance to, and reviews of, the taxonomy of all plant groups and fungi, including anatomy, biosystematics, cytology, ecology, ethnobotany, electron microscopy, morphogenesis, palaeobotany, palynology and phytochemistry. www.wiley.com/bw/journal.asp?ref=0024-4074&site=1
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Winner of Visit London's 2008 Kids Love London Best Family Fun Award, the Natural History Museum is also a world-leading science research centre. Through its collections and scientific expertise, the Museum is helping to conserve the extraordinary richness and diversity of the natural world with ground-breaking projects in 68 countries.
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