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The fly’s revenge: Are cadmium-contaminated insects killing endangered meat-eating plants?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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white-topped pitcher plantAround the world carnivorous plants are on the decline, the victims of habitat loss, illegal poaching and pollution. But now a new factor has come to light: The very insects the plants rely on for food may be poisoning them.

According to new research by Christopher Moody and Iain Green of Bournemouth University in England, prey insects could be contaminated with toxic metals such as cadmium that, when ingested by meat-eating flora, affect the plants’ growth.

Their research was published in February in the American Chemical Society journal, Environmental Science & Technology.

As part of their research, Moody and Green fed maggots that had elevated levels of cadmium and copper to endangered white-topped pitcher plants (Sarracenia leucophylla). Whereas the plants processed copper successfully, and it is in fact important to plant health, the cadmium built up in their systems, "where it was related to a reduction in shoot biomass." (In other words, the plants did not grow well when there was too much cadmium in their stems.)

Cadmium is widely used in fertilizers, metal coatings, electronics, batteries and other products. Both metals can accumulate in the environment, and thus in insects, through improper waste disposal.

Obviously, this needs further research before we can conclusively say that cadmium is killing meat-eating plants in the wild, but Moody and Green say that their findings suggest that it is important to limit the exposure of bug-scarfing plants to cadmium.

Photo: White-topped pitcher plant (Sarracenia leucophylla), via Wikipedia

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  1. 1. hotblack 3:37 pm 04/2/2010

    Why not just burn the world down and get it over with?

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  2. 2. David N'Gog 3:46 pm 04/2/2010

    Just in time for Easter. Egg eating plants may be being killed of by Cadburyium.

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  3. 3. krabcat 9:47 pm 04/2/2010

    why are you using endangered plants for your toxicity experiments anyway?
    paragraph below the picture(4th)

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  4. 4. Trent1492 10:38 am 04/3/2010

    I want to thank Velstras for his entirely predictable minute of science hate.

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  5. 5. Lee Hall 12:40 pm 04/3/2010

    I’m not keen on the tests myself (I believe there are always suitable alternatives to lab-based manipulations of life), but why must readers fill comment space with pointless snark? This seems to be going on practically everywhere, and it’s tedious. Those who can’t improve on the blank space should keep their mental burps to themselves.

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  6. 6. Devlbunny 5:35 pm 04/5/2010

    Mr Hall, by filling the blank space with complaints about others submissions, aren’t you committing the very same offense of which you accuse others? Furthermore, you are not even making a comment about the article! Let others have their snarky comments. At least they are making their opinion known.
    PS I think it is valuable research to discover the effects we have on nature. I sincerely hope Moody and Green are growing their own test subjects.

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  7. 7. zpyder 4:03 pm 04/6/2010

    Indeed, the plants used were from a commercial supplier that had grown the plants from tissue culture and seeds from parent plants. It’s important to note that the commercial trade in carnivorous plants has both positive and negative implications for wild plants. On the plus side, many species which may be on the cusp of extinction in the wild are being kept alive successfully by hobbyists, but that same trade has been responsible for the illegal poaching of the plants from the wild. It is through people buying from responsible suppliers/growers that we can hopefully lessen the impact of poaching on the plants.

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