Plant traps then eats worms underground

Jan. 10, 2012 at 7:14 PM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 10 (UPI) -- Scientists say they've discovered a carnivorous plant in Brazil that traps small worms with its sticky underground leaves then consumes them.

Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers say the small flowering plant was discovered in sandy soils in a tiny region of the Cerrado, a tropical savanna region in Brazil.

In addition to normal leaves above ground to capture the energy of the sun to convert carbon dioxide into sugars, Philcoxia minensis also has a network of tiny underground leaves, each about the size of a pinhead, which contain glands secreting a sticky mucus that traps tiny nematodes, or roundworms, and starts to digest them.

Researcher Rafael Oliveira, a professor of botany at the State University of Campinas in Sao Paulo, said he learned about Philcoxia from a colleague who had visited the remote site where it lives and described a plant with underground leaves.

"I had never seen a plant with underground leaves before," he said. "It doesn't make a lot of sense to have leaves underground because there is less sunlight -- so we hypothesized they're getting some other kind of benefit from the leaves."

Carnivorous plants are often found in nutrient-deficient environments and add to their protein needs by consuming insects, researchers said.

Barry Rice, a carnivorous plant expert at Sierra College in California, said Philcoxia's sticky underground leaves are a previously unseen and surprising strategy.

"What else have we missed? It never stops to embarrass me that we spend so little on exploring our own planet," he said.

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