Plants that eat insects exist? They sure do and they are called carnivorous plants! There are many different species of carnivorous plant but all have one thing in common, they eat insects for nutrients that they can't get from the soil. Without good conservation, like preserving and managing ecologically significant land, carnivorous plants, like the Venus flytrap, won’t have a place to live in the natural world. So where are these charismatic carnivorous Venus flytrap plants? Are they surviving? Are they thriving?
What and where is the Venus flytrap?
Venus flytraps are an iconic species, not just for North & South Carolina which is their native home, but for the world. They have been featured in over a dozen movies (it actually has its own horror movie called "Venus Flytrap" released in 1970), musicals (think Little Shop of Horrors) and TV shows (the Simpsons see them at the Botanical Garden). The Venus flytraps scientific name is Dionaea (goddess of love) muscipula (mousetrap) and it depends on a very unique, fire-dependent habitat for survival. It is North Carolina’s official carnivorous plant and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has been working to conserve and protect this species unique habitat for many years.
A very small corner of North and South Carolina, specifically a 90 mile radius around Wilmington, North Carolina, is the only place in the world that the Venus flytrap grows in the wild. The majority of Venus flytraps grow in three very large populations and one of those populations is none other than TNC’s own Green Swamp preserve (a fitting name for the home of a carnivorous plant).
Keeping the Flytraps alive
The 16,639 acre preserve called the Green Swamp is in the southeast coastal plain of North Carolina. The Green Swamp is home to a substantial population of Venus flytraps, but to maintain those populations a few things are needed. First and foremost, the flytraps need fire. The Green Swamp and surrounding areas are fire dependent which means they require controlled burns to stay healthy and to maintain the open understory savanna habitat needed to ensure Venus flytrap survival in the wild. Without these fires the savannas become overgrown shading out the light and taking up the nutrients the flytraps need.
Secondly, flytrap poachers need to be stopped. Poaching of a plant, or digging up a plant from private property to sell it, might sound unexpected but it only takes a quick Google search of “poaching Venus flytraps” to reveal the true extent of the market value of this plant. People are commonly arrested for poaching Venus flytraps, particularly from the Green Swamp, but the problem has outgrown the resources needed to arrest all poachers. It’s a real threat to their limited populations, even if a surprising one.
The science we need to succeed – i.e. what you are paying for!
TNC, in their effort to protect this unique fly-eating plant, wants to make sure they are effectively protecting the unique ecosystem it grows in. Are these plants being poached away? Is fire occurring frequently enough and in the right places to maintain their viability?
To answer these questions TNC proposes to survey the Venus flytrap population in the Green Swamp to provide a starting point from which to monitor these species in the future. If we know where the Venus flytraps are located in the preserve we can better direct where we need to do our controlled burning. Also, knowing specific Venus flytrap locations can help us to abate poaching. We will be able to keep a closer watch out in areas that have significantly larger numbers of Venus flytrap plants.
But here's the thing, there are densely vegetated habitats throughout the Green Swamp interspersed with the savannas called pocosin. Pocosins make it extraordinarily difficult to access many areas in the Green Swamp. This is why we are lacking information about the numbers and locations of Venus flytraps. We just haven't had the time to survey ourselves or the resources to contract the survey out. This is what led us here. We have a Green Swamp-area native botanist that has done other field work for us armed and ready to brave the pocosin. Our botanist will establish baseline monitoring plots as well as sample. This will allow us to monitor and track populations of Venus flytraps through time. It will be no easy task for the botanist as the conditions in the Green Swamp can be very hot and buggy. Trudging through pocosin would test even the very best field scientist! The baseline survey will take several months so long story short our botanist will need to be well compensated for their work, plus there will be other expenses like fuel and monitoring supplies.
We cannot possibly effectively conserve these species if we do not know how many we have and where they are located. This data will ensure we are managing Venus flytrap habitat properly and will complement the policy work TNC is pursuing to provide for tougher penalties on those caught poaching.
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