The Bladderworts suck up animals and eat them alive. But which species are facing this macabre disappearance?


In a wetland east of Esperance, Thilo Krueger tries to solve a puzzling case.

It wades through the habitat of the world’s fastest predatory plant, which survives by sucking animals into a trap and eating them alive.

While the hunting tactics seem messy, they are in fact so secretive that no one has been able to identify exactly what species of animals the plants ingest.

Curtin University doctoral student Mr Krueger hopes to change that.

Thilo Krueger, Zoe Bullen, Duarne Close and Donna Beach. (ABC News: Emily Smith)

Mr. Krueger is interested in a particular type of carnivorous plant called vulpine, of the genus Utricularia, known as “the world’s fastest moving predatory plant” due to its system of trapping animals.

A green bubble-shaped structure attached to the stem of a plant
A close-up image of the predatory helminth trap, which it uses to trap and eat animals.(Provided: Thilo Krueger)

The plant has an underwater bladder attached to its stem, which is surrounded by small hairs that act as tripwires.

When an animal passes in front of the trapwire, it triggers the opening of the bladder and the suction of the prey inside.

This happens in a fraction of a millisecond; over 100 times faster than a Venus fly trap.

The animal is then digested into the structure of the bladder.

What do plants eat?

Dr. Krueger plans to use a technique called DNA bar coding to determine what species of animal plants are eating.

Adam Cross, an ecologist at Curtin University, said previous studies of the Hymenoptera’s diet consisted of looking at the traps under a microscope and trying to see what was there.

A piece of curly grass with prominent sack-like structures on it
Small sack-like structures are where plants suck animals in to eat. (Provided: Thilo Krueger)

But he explained that since the traps are so small, and since a large part of the prey was partially digested, it was very difficult to determine them visually.

But a DNA comparison should be much more accurate.

The small plant wraps around a stick and has a small purple flower
The twining utricularia helix is ​​endemic to the Esperance region.(Provided: Thilo Krueger)

The first step in this technique requires Mr. Krueger to take samples from the plant traps, which he did near Esperance last week.

The stems extend from the small plant, with small bladder-like structures at the end
The traps, which the plant uses to catch and eat small animals, are easily seen on the stems sticking out of the plant.(Provided: David Guilfoyle)

He will then send them to a lab to sequence all the DNA found in the trap.

This will then be compared against a library of known animal DNA sequences and hopefully reveal exactly which species are inside each trap.

It will also allow them to compare the dietary differences between chinstrap species.

Krueger says the diet will likely include small crustaceans, such as ostracods, copepods, and water fleas.

Low rainfall, agricultural runoff can threaten species

Donna Beach, an elder and ranger with the Esperance Tjaltjraak Native Title Corporation, is part of a local ranger team assisting Mr. Krueger last week.

The pair stand in a swamp wearing hats and waders
Thilo Krueger and Donna Beach search for Hymenoptera samples. (Provided: David Guilfoyle)

She was delighted to learn that unique species were thriving in her homeland, Kepa Kurl Boodja, and was keen to help conserve them.

Mr Krueger believes conservation work will be crucial, given that plants need low-nutrient wetlands to survive, and these will likely suffer if rainfall decreases and nutrient-rich runoff from the properties. agricultural workers are moving towards their habitats.

A beautiful purple flower is attached to a twining stalk and sits above a body of water
The nutrient poor habitat around Esperance is ideal for helminths, as they get nutrients from eating animals. (Provided: David Guilfoyle)

Esperance is known for its nutrient poor soil, and Krueger says that’s why jugulars have adapted to get their nutrients instead of animals.

Although there are around 250 species in the world, nine are found near Esperance and two of them are endemic to the region.

“Most of these species are cultivated, so people in botanical gardens, for example, cultivate them,” he said.

“But I would say the most important thing is really to make sure the plants are safe in their natural environment.”


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