The Carnivorous Dewy Pine

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The dewy pine is definitely not a pine, however, it is quite dewy. Known scientifically as Drosophyllum lusitanicum, this carnivore is odd in more ways than one. It is also growing more and more rare each year.

One of the strangest aspects of dewy pine ecology is its habitat preferences. Whereas most carnivorous plants enjoy growing in saturated soils or even floating in water, the dewy pine's preferred habitats dry up completely for a considerably portion of the year. Its entire distribution consists of scattered populations throughout the western Iberian Peninsula and northwest Morocco.

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Its ability to thrive in such xeric conditions is a bit of a conundrum. Plants stay green throughout the year and produce copious amounts of sticky mucilage as a means of catching prey. During the summer months, both air and soil temperatures can skyrocket to well over 100°F (37 °C). Though they possess a rather robust rooting system, dewy pines don't appear to produce much in the way of fine roots. Because of this, any ground water presence deeper in the soil is out of their reach. How then do these plants manage to function throughout the driest parts of the year?

During the hottest months, the only regular supply of water comes in the form of dew. Throughout the night and into early morning, temperatures cool enough for water to condense out of air. Dew covers anything with enough surface area to promote condensation. Thanks to all of those sticky glands on its leaves, the dewy pine possesses plenty of surface area for dew to collect. It is believed that, coupled with the rather porous cuticle of the surface of its leaves, the dewy pine is able to obtain water and reduce evapotranspiration enough to keep itself going throughout the hottest months. 

Dewy pine leaves unfurl like fern fiddle heads as they grow.

Dewy pine leaves unfurl like fern fiddle heads as they grow.

As you have probably guessed at this point, those dewy leaves do more than photosynthesize and collect water. They also capture prey. Carnivory in this species evolved in response to the extremely poor conditions of their native soils. Nutrients and minerals are extremely low, thus selecting for species that can acquire these necessities via other means. Each dewy pine leaf is covered in two types of glands: stalked glands that produce sticky mucilage, and sessile glands that secrete digestive enzymes and absorb nutrients.

Their ability to capture insects far larger than one would expect is quite remarkable. The more an insect struggles, the more it becomes ensnared. The strength of the dewy pines mucilage likely stems from the fact that the leaves do not move like those of sundews (Drosera spp.). Once an insect is stuck, there is not much hope for its survival. Living in an environment as extreme as this, the dewy pine takes no chances.

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The taxonomic affinity of the dewy pine has been a source of confusion as well. Because of its obvious similarity to the sundews, the dewy pine has long been considered a member of the family Droseraceae. However, although recent genetic work does suggest a distant relationship with Droseraceae and Nepenthaceae, experts now believe that the dewy pine is unique enough to warrant its own family. Thus, it is now the sole species of the family Drosophyllaceae.

Sadly, the dewy pine is losing ground fast. From industrialization and farming to fire suppression, dewy pines are running out of habitat. It is odd to think of a plant capable of living in such extreme conditions as being overly sensitive but that is the conundrum faced by more plants than just the dewy pine. Without regular levels of intermediate disturbance that clear the landscape of vegetation, plants like the dewy pine quickly get outcompeted by more aggressive plant species. Its the fact that dewy pine can live in such hostile environments that, historically, has kept its populations alive and well.

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What's more, it appears that dewy pines have trouble getting their seeds into new habitats. Low seed dispersal ability means populations can be cut off from suitable habitats that are only modest distances away. Without a helping hand, small, localized populations can disappear alarmingly fast. The good news is, conservationists are working hard on identifying what must be done to ensure the dewy pine is around for future generations to enjoy.

Changes in land use practices, prescribed fires, wild land conservation, and incentives for cattle farmers to adopt more traditional rather than industrial grazing practices may turn the table on dewy pine extinction. Additionally, dewy pines have become a sort of horticultural oddity over the last decade or so. As dedicated growers perfect germination and growing techniques, ex situ conservation can help maintain stocks of genetic material around the globe.

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4]

 

 

New Plant Species Discovered on Facebook

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There are many downsides to the amount of time some of us spend on the internet but there is no denying that there are some incredible benefits as well. Never before in human history has information been so readily available to so many people. Without Facebook, In Defense of Plants would not have anywhere near the platform from which I can interact with all of you wonderful plant folk. In what may be one of the coolest uses of social media to date, a new species of carnivorous plant has been discovered using Facebook! 

While exploring a mountain top in Brazil, amateur researcher  Reginaldo Vasconcelos snapped a few shots of a large sundew. Upon returning home, the pictures were uploaded to Facebook for the world to see. It didn't take long for scientists to notice that the plant in the picture was something quite special. 

Indeed, what Vasconcelos had photographed was a species of Drosera completely new to science! This is the first time that a new species has been discovered using social media. Experts have now published the first scientific description of this species. It has been named Drosera magnifica - the magnificent sundew. 

And magnificent it is! According to the authors of the paper, "It is the largest sundew in the Americas, and the second-largest carnivorous plant in the Americas. In this respect it is also a spectacular plant.” The plant was discovered in Minas Gerais, Brazil. Oddly enough, the mountain on which it was found is readily accessible. How this species went undiscovered for so long is quite a mystery. It just goes to show you how little we know about the world we live in. 

That sad part about this discovery is that the mountain it is endemic to is surrounded by cattle ranches as well as coffee and eucalyptus plantations. The future of this brand new species is by no means certain. Researchers have already elevated its status to critically endangered. Unless other populations are found, this species may disappear not long after its discovery. 

Photo Credit: Paulo Gonella

Further Reading:

http://www.mapress.com/phytotaxa/content/2015/f/p00220p267f.pdf