The Plight of the Venus Fly Trap

The fact that endangered plants do not receive the same protection as animals speaks volumes towards our perception of their importance. If one were to gun down an endangered bird, regardless of where it happened, they would likely face jail time. This is a good thing. However, regardless of how endangered a plant may be, as long as it is on private property and written consent is given by the land owner, one can harvest to their hearts content. It could be the last population in existence. The point of the matter is, endangered plants only receive protection on federal lands. Even then, enforcement is difficult at best. 

Plant poaching is serious business. The victims are usually pretty species like orchids or valuable species like American ginseng. The rarer something is, the higher the price. Someone will always be willing to pay top dollar to add something rare to their collection. This story is repeated time and time again throughout the world but one particularly interesting example centers on a plant that most people are familiar with and have probably attempted to grow at one point in their lives - the Venus fly trap (Dionaea muscipula).

It may be counter intuitive to believe that a plant so often sold in grocery stores could be in trouble but the Venus flytrap truly is. In the wild, Venus fly traps are what we call endemics. They are native to a small portion of land in the Carolinas and nowhere else. Sadly, the long leaf pine savannahs and Carolina bays that they call home are being gobbled up by golf courses, pine plantations, and housing developments. The Venus fly trap (as well as over 100 other endangered species) are quickly losing the only habitat in the world that they exist. 

Of the 107 Venus fly trap populations that remain, only 65 of them are located on protected land. If habitat destruction wasn't enough, plant collectors, both legal and illegal, descend upon this region to get their hands on wild fly traps. This, my friends, is the definition of stupidity and greed. A simple internet search will turn up countless hobbyists and nurseries alike that culture these plants in captivity. It isn't very hard to do and it can be done on a massive scale. 

There is simply no reason to have to harvest Venus fly traps from the wild. None. Despite the plight of this unique species, legal protection of the Venus fly trap is almost non existent. It is listed as a "species of special concern" in North Carolina, which basically means nothing. For poachers, this really doesn't matter. Thousands of plants are stolen from the wild on protected and unprotected lands alike. Recent felony charges against Venus fly trap poachers offer some hope that the situation may be changing but that still does nothing to protect plants that, through senseless loopholes, are collected legally. 

This circles back to those plants we often see for sale in grocery stores. If they are in a red pot with a clear plastic cup on top, you can almost guarantee they came from the Fly-Trap Farm. This company openly admits to buying and selling plants collected from the wild. Despite the afore mentioned fact that culturing them in captivity is done with relative ease, the demand for these carnivorous curiosities coupled with their perceived disposability means that wild populations of this already threatened plant are growing smaller and smaller. 

Venus fly traps are endemics. They grow nowhere else in the world. If their habitat is destroyed and demand for wild plants continues, there is no Plan B. This species will be lost to the world forever. Again, there is no reason to buy wild collected plants. Plenty of hobbyists and nurseries such as The Carnivore Girl, Meadowview Biological Research Station, and California Carnivores (just to name a few) offer reasonably priced cultivated Venus fly traps. Whereas it is difficult or even impossible to squash poaching for good, we as consumers can always vote with our wallets. 

It is tough to say whether or not there is hope for the Venus fly trap and its neighbors. This region of the Carolinas is growing in its human population. So many Venus fly trap populations have already been lost forever and more are likely to disappear in the near future. There may be hope, however, and it comes in the form of land protection. Recent acquisitions of large tracts of Venus fly trap habitat are promising. Regardless, unless the public speaks up about the plight of these long leaf pine savannahs and Carolina bays, no one is going to listen. Plants deserve the same protection as animals. Heck, we wouldn't have any cute and fuzzy megafauna if it were not for healthy plant populations. Protecting plants needs to be a priority. 

Photo Credit: NC Orchid (http://bit.ly/1MUlE0x)

Further Reading:
http://archive.audubonmagazine.org/features0803/carnivorousplants.html

http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/39636/0

http://wunc.org/post/north-carolina-enacts-venus-flytrap-theft-laws-how-big-problem-really#stream/0

"The Mountains Are Calling and I Must Go..." - John Muir

I find myself thinking the same thing as I drive to work every morning - "Screw you, North Carolina! How dare you be so beautiful?" I say this with love of course. I mean it too. My daily commute takes me through the Cowee Mountains, which represent only the tiniest fraction of the giant fold in the continent that we collectively refer to as the "Appalachian Mountains." Driving between these forested peaks, it feels as if time stands still. They are a stark and constant reminder of just how small and insignificant our time on this planet really is. 

What so few realize is that these mountains are some of the oldest on Earth. They are the collective result of some serious geology. Between 325 million and 260 million years ago, Africa slammed into North America (though it wasn't the continent we know today) causing massive upheaval of the crust. This was also the birth of the super-continent Pangea. The resulting upheaval produced a mountain chain similar in size to the present day Himalayas (think Mt. Everest). They have been steadily eroding ever since. 

Today, the highest peaks reach somewhere in the 6,000 feet (1,800 m) range. Despite this reduction in size, the Appalachian Mountains have nonetheless been a major driver in the ecology of eastern North America. They have served as refugia for species escaping glaciation, they act as corridors for migration, and they even produce their own climate. They may not be the snow capped mountains of the American West but they have a uniqueness all their own. There aren't many places in this world in which one can explore broadleaf deciduous forests at elevation. If I could end up here I think I would die a happy man. For now, I am spending every free moment absorbing the beauty and splendor of this place. It is going to be hard to leave...

Heading South

I never much considered southern North America as a place I would enjoy. Born and raised in the north, I always assumed that anywhere below Pennsylvania would be too hot and sticky for me. A brief trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park changed all of that. I fell head over heals for the forests of this region. Species I had only read about or perhaps stumbled across once or twice up home were now surrounding me, bursting forth with a profusion unlike anything I had ever seen before. There is something special about this region. The trip ended seemingly as soon as it began but I was hooked. 

Fast forward a few more years. When I found out that I would be pursuing a  PhD in Illinois, I was both excited and apprehensive. A career goal I set for myself back in the early days of high school was finally set in motion. This was reason to celebrate. Yet, leaving behind any form of topography for the ironed out landscape of the American midwest seemed a bit nerve racking. However, my nerves were quickly assuaged after finding out that my research was going to be based in the southern Appalachian Mountains. It was back to the forested peaks for me!

On June 2nd, 2015, I said goodbye to Buffalo and headed south. The purpose of this trip was to get a feel for where I would be working and hopefully inspire me into generating some hypotheses. Needless to say I was ecstatic about spending a month in the mountains. At the point of writing this, I am now 5 days into this journey and it is safe to say that I am completely transfixed with these mountains.

On the surface, this is not hard to imagine. A combination of topography, climate, and lots of history support some of the most diverse plant communities on the entire continent. This place is bursting at the seams with life. Every morning I awake to a cacophony of birdsong. I listen intently to songs whose  identity escapes me. As I sit out on the deck, sucking down the coffee that will fuel me during the morning plant surveys, I look out into a rich Appalachian cove forest. Up on the deck I stand about midway in the canopy staring down ancient oaks, magnolias, maples, and even the occasional holly. The birds are busy harvesting this year's crop of caterpillars to feed their rapidly growing chicks. This world is alive. 

To earn my keep, I am assisting in some plant surveys. My mentor and friend Dr. Robert Warren has set up experimental plots along north and south facing slopes and my friend Lauren and I are tasked with identifying everything growing within them. I couldn't ask for a better gig. It is going to be a great month. In my down time I plant to explore as much of this place as possible. Not a minute will go to waste. The icing on the cake is that I am surrounded by like minded ecologists in training. Everyone down here has their own speciality, their own questions, and their own passions that drive them to do what they do. Nowhere have I felt more at home.