Fortean Plants (Carnivorous; Man-Eating)

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Fortea Morgana :) PeteByrdie certificated Princess
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#61
At the weekend I bought some old books, including a couple of lovely bound editions of magazines. One has an account of a ceremonial sacrifice of a woman to a carnivorous tree in Madagascar. If anyone's interested I'll scan and post it. Sadly there's no illustration.
Ahem! *looks hopeful*
 

amarok2005

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#62
"Science Jottings," from the Illustrated London News, August 27, 1892:

SCIENCE JOTTINGS​

BY DR. ANDREW WILSON​

I have lately met with the description of a very singular plant, given originally, I believe, in a provincial newspaper. As one is always interested in the strange and weird as represented in nature, I give the account for what it is worth. It may be nothing more than a piece of fiction, of course (I have learned caution from more than one instance of a joke being stated in the gravest of terms); but if, on the contrary, the incident described was a real one, I shall expect to hear something more about this wonderful plant. Perhaps some of my readers may be able to inform me whether or not the matter is a "plant," vulgarly speaking, in another sense.

It appears that a naturalist, a Mr. Dunstan by name, was botanising in one of the swamps surrounding the Nicaragua Lake. The account goes on to relate that "while hunting for specimens he heard his dog cry out, as if in agony, from a distance. Running to the spot whence the animal's cries came, Mr. Dunstan found him enveloped in a perfect network of what seemed to be a fine, rope-like tissue of roots and fibres. The plant or vine seemed composed entirely of bare, interlacing stems, resembling more than anything else the branches of a weeping willow denuded of its foliage, but of a dark, nearly black hue, and covered with a thick, viscid gum that exuded from the pores. Drawing his knife, Mr. Dunstan attempted to cut the poor beast free, but it was with the very greatest difficulty that he managed to sever the fleshy muscular fibres (sic) of the plant. When the dog was extricated from the coils of the plant, Mr. Dunstan saw to his horror that the body was bloodstained, while the skin appeared to be actually sucked or puckered in spots, and the animal staggered as if from exhaustion. In cutting the vine the twigs curled like living, sinuous fingers about Mr. Dunstan's hand, and it required no slight force to free the member from their clinging grasp, which left the flesh red and blistered. The tree, it seems, is well known to the natives, who relate many stories of its death-dealing powers. Its appetite is voracious and insatiable, and in five minutes it will suck the nourishment from a large lump of meat, rejecting the carcass (sic) as a spider does that of a used-up fly." This is a very circumstantial account of the incident, but in such tales it is, of course, absurd "to leave such a matter to a doubt." If correct, it is very clear we have yet to add a very notable example to the list of plants which demand an animal dietary as a condition to their existence; and our sundews, Venus flytraps, and pitcher plants will then have to "pale their ineffectual fires" before the big devourer of the Nicaragua swamps.
 

Mikefule

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#63
Man eating plants: great fun in stories, but clearly not a real thing, for several practical reasons.

All known carnivorous plants have evolved in areas where the growing conditions are poor, such as bad soil or acidic marshland. The stories tend to put the man eating plants in fertile areas of jungle where ("primitive savage") people live.

Where are the intermediate sizes? If you look at any other broad group of living things, you will see intermediate sizes. Cetaceans range from small porpoises up to the blue whale. Herbivorous land mammals range from small rodents up to elephants. Snakes range from a few inches right up to anacondas and pythons. It would be extraordinary if the only carnivorous plants were either tiny enough to live on a diet of insects or big enough to overcome a struggling human, with no sizes in between.

Breeding populations. Plants cannot wander a wide territory in search of a mate. The offspring cannot leave the herd to find their own territory. If a large carnivorous plant species existed, it would necessarily be found in colonies or clusters, rather than isolated examples worshipped by primitive tribes.

A cluster of plants large enough to live on a diet of large animals would struggle to get sufficient large animals to go near to it. Presumably the plants near the centre of the colony would starve because the plants near the edge got all the food. A predator that sits in one place for its whole life relies on its prey coming to it. This is fine for a sea anemone sitting on a rock in the current, or a marsh plant waiting for flies to land on it, but it is a poor strategy for something that intends to eat pigs, monkeys or humans.

As others have said, sharks did not evolve to subsist on a diet of humans, and the same could be said of predators such as the tiger. Similarly, a plant could not evolve simply to eat people. Humans are social animals and plants are static. Once the species was identified as dangerous, humans would either avoid it or destroy it.

Any large carnivorous plant would have to evolve to eat other large animals, and perhaps very occasionally catch an unwary human — or receive a sacrifice. Therefore, the plant would need to subsist on species roughly human in size. That might include monkeys, wild pigs, and the like. However, most of these species are intelligent enough to avoid obvious hazards, and physically strong enough to fight back successfully and escape. Even active and mobile predators such as lions or wolves achieve considerably less than a 100% success rate when hunting.

The various mechanisms described in the stories (writhing tendrils, or impaling spikes) are not found in any of the known types of carnivorous plant. In particular, impaling the prey on an external spike is not the best way of then absorbing the prey's nutrients.

Known carnivorous plants use various mechanisms. Most use only one, but some use two in combination.
  • Pitcher plants are passive. They sit there and wait for prey to land and slip into the trap. They then slowly digest it. It is hard to imagine many occasions in which a sizeable animal, such as a pig, would be in the right position to fall into an enormous pitcher plant.
  • Bladder plants produce a partial vacuum. When the prey triggers the trap, an opening allows an inrush of air or water that pulls it in. Clearly this mechanism would not be powerful enough to suck in a human.
  • Flypaper traps are basically plants with very sticky leaves. Plants exist that are sticky enough for an insect to become trapped. I doubt that a plant could produce leaves so sticky that a wild pig, monkey, or human could not escape. Certainly, this mechanism does not feature in the lurid stories.
  • Lobster pot traps have some similarities to the pitcher plant. The mechanism is that the prey finds it easy to get in, but is faced with one-way barriers that make it difficult to escape. In the known species, the trapping mechanism works with fine hairs which point inwards and act like a ratchet. This is fine for catching small insects and the like, However, if you scale it up so that the hairs are strong enough to ensnare a human sized animal, the trap would be quite conspicuous, and also it would take some strength to force your way in.
  • Snap traps such as the Venus fly trap. There are only two known species of snap trap. The Venus fly trap is a wetland plant from the east coast of North America. The waterwheel plant is more widespread, and lives in standing water. These plants actively trap their prey. They have moving parts. The moving traps are two modified leaves which snap together like jaws. They do not have snake like tendrils or tentacles. The movement is caused by changes of hydrostatic pressure in the cells. Although on the small scale of an insectivorous plant, it is fast enough and strong enough to do the job, it is obvious that if it were scaled up to a size suitable to trap humans, it would be neither fast enough nor strong enough.
The man eating plants in the stories I read as a kid were basically very large sea anemones, painted green and transplanted into a jungle setting. Great in a thrilling story, but they could not exist in real life.
 

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#64
I wonder if the stories have been fed (!) by people seeing plants flourishing through the remains of an animal or human.
 

amarok2005

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#65
But here in the Super-Sargasso Sea, just because something is impossible doesn't mean it doesn't exist! (But the thought of sea anemones makes me wonder: what if there was something that resembled a plant that started such stories? Like:

In the September 24, 1892, Illustrated London News, Dr. Wilson reports further:

"The 'snake-tree' is described in a newspaper paragraph as found on an outlying spur of the Sierra Madre, in Mexico. It has movable branches (by which I suppose, is meant sensitive branches), of a 'slimy, snaky appearance,' which seized a bird that incautiously alighted on them, the bird being drawn down till the traveller lost sight of it. Where did the bird go to? Latterly it fell to the ground, flattened out, the earth being covered with bones and feathers, the debris, no doubt, of former captures. The adventurous traveller touched one of the branches of the tree. It closed upon his hand with such force as to tear the skin when he wrenched it away. He then fed the tree with chickens, and the tree absorbed their blood by means of the suckers (like those of the octopus) with which its branches were covered.

“I confess this is a very ‘tall’ story indeed. A tree which is not only highly sensitive, but has branches which suck the blood out of the birds it captures, is an anomaly in botany. Mexico is surely not quite such an unexplored territory that a tale like this should go unverified. I give the story simply for what it is worth. A lady correspondent, however, reminds me that in Charles Kingsley’s West Indian papers he describes a similar tree to the Nicaraguan plant of Mr. Dunstan."
 

amarok2005

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#66
From Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees, Fruits, and Plants by Charles M. Skinner (1911):

We may dismiss as mythical the travelled tale of a Venus fly-trap which was magnified into quite another matter before Captain Arkright was through with it, for such tales grow larger the farther they go from their beginning. It was in 1581 that the valiant explorer learned of an atoll in the South Pacific that one might not visit, save on peril of his life, for this coral ring inclosed a group of islets on one of which the Death Flower grew; hence it was named El Banoor, or Island of Death. This flower was so large that a man might enter it -- a cave of color and perfume -- but if he did so it was the last of him, for, lulled by its strange fragrance, he reclined on its lower petals and fell into the sleep from which there is no waking. Then, as if to guard his slumber, the flower slowly folded its petals around him. The fragrance increased and burning acid was distilled from its calyx, but of all hurt the victim was unconscious, and so passing into death through splendid dreams, he gave his body to the plant for food.
 

amarok2005

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#67
Perhaps identical to the Snake-Tree is the hideous Rattle-snake Bush of Mexico, mentioned in Charles M. Skinner's book, which was "a tree of serpents that wound its arms about men and animals that tried to pass, and stung and strangled them to death."

From the Field Museum of Natural History's Botany Leaflet 23, Carnivorous Plants and "The Man-Eating Tree" (1939), by Sophia Pryor, comes the story of the "Monkey-Trap Tree" (reprinted in Schartz, p. 123):

"A recent report is credited to a Brazilian explorer named Mariano da Silva who returned from an expedition that led him into a district of Brazil that borders on Guyana. He had there sought out the settlement of Yatapu Indians. During his journey he saw a tree which nourishes itself on animals. The tree itself exudes a peculiar sharp odor which attracts its victims, especially monkeys. As soon as they climb the trunk, all is up with them, for very quickly they are completely closed in by the leaves, and one neither hears nor sees them again. After about three days the leaves open and let drop to the earth the bones, completely stripped."
 

Yithian

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#68
Given that fictional influences have been cited, I'll add "Prima Belladonna" a 1956 short story from J.G. Ballard's Vermilion Sands collection (1971).

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vermilion_Sands

Singing plants feature.

Download/Buy and consume this collection with relish. You may as well get accustomed to the Ballardian vision of the future as we're fast on the way there as a society.

Ballard is the best of the 20th Century sci-fi visionaries I have read; his complete short stories are simply stunning in depth, scope and variety.
 

EnolaGaia

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#69
Killer plant 'eats' great tit at Somerset nursery
A plant has killed and "eaten" a great tit at a garden nursery in Somerset.
Nurseryman Nigel Hewitt-Cooper, from West Pennard, was inspecting his tropical garden when he discovered one of his pitcher plants had trapped the bird. ...
"The larger ones frequently take frogs, lizards and mice, and the biggest ones have been found with rats in them, but to find a bird in one is pretty unusual."
This Science Daily article describes the trapping (and presumed digestion) of a vertebrate (salamander) as a newly discovered occurrence in the North America context. The 2018 survey results cited herein represent the first report I'd ever seen confirming multiple vertebrate 'kills' in a single area.

Bug-eating pitcher plants found to consume young salamanders, too
Date:June 7, 2019 Source: University of Guelph Summary: Pitcher plants growing in wetlands across Canada have long been known to eat creatures -- mostly insects and spiders -- that fall into their bell-shaped leaves and decompose in rainwater collected there. But researchers have discovered that vertebrates -- specifically, salamanders -- are also part of their diet.

... In what is believed to be a first for North America, biologists at the University of Guelph have discovered that meat-eating pitcher plants in Ontario's Algonquin Park wetlands consume not just bugs but also young salamanders. ...

Pitcher plants growing in wetlands across Canada have long been known to eat creatures -- mostly insects and spiders -- that fall into their bell-shaped leaves and decompose in rainwater collected there.

But until now, no one had reported this salamander species caught by a pitcher plant in North America, ...

Monitoring pitcher plants around a single pond in the park in fall 2018, the team found almost one in five contained the juvenile amphibians, each about as long as a human finger. Several plants contained more than one captured salamander. ...

Meat-eating pitcher plants have been known since the eighteenth century. One species discovered a decade ago in Asia consumes mostly insects and spiders but also captures small birds and mice. ...
FULL STORY: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/06/190607193657.htm
 
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