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Sainsbury Laboratory

Microscopy images of the traps and meristem area of Utricularia gibba, which is more commonly known as floating bladderwort.

Gotcha! How carnivorous plants trap their prey


How do carnivorous plants ensnare their targets? How did they develop the structures to do so? To find out, join Dr Chris Whitewoods from the Sainsbury Laboratory in this online event incorporating a live microscopy demonstration.

We’ll explore how these plants are used in research, which cutting-edge scientific tools are helping us to understand how they grow, and some of the wider topics in plant development these special plants can help us to investigate.


How to register to attend

Choose one of the sessions below to attend and then fill out the Registration Form:

  • 4:00pm-5:00pm on Sunday 19 September
  • 7:00pm-8:00pm on Tuesday 14 September



Examples of some well-known types of carnivorous plants (from left), Cape Sundew (Drosera capensis), Trumpet Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea) and Venus Fly Trap (Dionea muscipula). Images courtesy of Science and Plants for Schools image library.


Animal-eating plants

Plants produce some of the most intricate and amazing structures that we find in nature. 

While they all share a common basic plant body consisting of stems, roots, leaves and reproductive organs like flowers - there is incredible diversity across these structures.

Some of the most complex structures that we see are the traps of carnivorous plants. These come in all shapes and sizes and employ different ways of trapping their prey, yet most of them are adaptations of the same organ – a leaf.


Evolution of cup-shaped traps

Carnivorous plants with cup-shaped traps like pitcher plants and bladderworts grow in environments with low nutrients. The many types of cup-shaped traps seen in carnivorous plants have not evolved from a single source – in fact they have evolved four times indepently to capture animal prey.

Dr Whitewoods is exploring how plants have developed processes to change the shape of their leaves into theses specialised traps and as a result, gain a clearer understanding of how plants develop and evolve complex shapes.

He is undertaking his research with one of the lesser known, but incredibly fascinating, carnivorous plants – bladderworts.

Utricularia gibba flowering and close-up of traps.


Why bladderworts?

Bladderworts are small plants that take up less space and are quick to grow. Dr Whitewoods uses Utricularia gibba, which is more commonly known as floating bladderwort and has tiny yellow flowers. It has had it whole genome sequenced, which makes it a valuable plant to undertake genetic and evolutionary research on.

There are over 200 different Utricularia species and it is the most species rich group of all the carnivorous plants! 

They mostly grow in wet soils, but some like U. gibba are aquatic – they grow floating in water.

Utricularia vulgaris, which is a British native bladderwort species.

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