Do Carnivorous Plants Poo?

Rose's the host
Laura's the guest
Carnivorous plants
Are the absolute best

Ever heard of the very hungry caterpillar? Well, it may have been defeated by some very hungry plants. In today’s episode, Laura Skates has a chat about the unknown world of carnivorous plants.

Find Laura on Twitter @floraskates, on Instagram @floraskates and at her website

Particle Podcast is about science and the people who just love it. It’s produced and presented by Rose Kerr (@rosie.zkerr). Particle is powered by Scitech, and you can send us your own terrible plant poems by tagging @ParticleWA on Twitter and Instagram.


Do Carnivorous Plants Poo?

  • Host: Rose Kerr
  • Guest: Laura Skates

**Cue music (intro theme)

Rose Kerr: Welcome to the particle podcast where we talk about science and the people who just love it.
I’m Rose and I’m obsessed with cool plants.
Which is why today I’m very excited to be joined by Laura Skates:.
Laura is a passionate plant lady and an expert on carnivorous plants.
We had a chat about hungry plants, field work and why plants are cooler than animals.
We hope this episode leaves you hungry for more.

So welcome, Laura.

Laura Skates: Thanks, Rose.

Rose Kerr: Please explain. What do you actually do?

Laura Skates: I guess what I actually do is I research on carnivorous plants and I focus on their nutritional ecology. So basically how much did they actually rely on insects in the wild to get the nutrients they need?

Rose Kerr: Before we get in too deep let me define what a carnivorous plant is as a group. Broadly, they have leaves designed to trap and digest pry. So yep, that means anything from lava to bugs to salamanders or even poo. There’s five types. The first is snap traps. They’re like a venus flytrap so they kind of look like a mouth with interlocking teeth. You’ve got sticky traps, which have this glue substance on them that catch the insects. Suction traps, they’re aquatic, they have a bag with a trap door. And as the insects lands on the door, water rushes in with it, and then the bug can’t get back out. Pitcher traps, which are a jug with digestive juices so the prey ends up falling into the jug and being digested. And then finally there’s corkscrew carnivorous plants and these ones are the only ones not in Australia and there’s only one group. They kind of have a one way maze if you pictured going to IKEA where you can’t go backwards, you can only go forwards and the prey will keep going until it falls to its eventual death.

So that’s your PhD project.

Laura Skates: Yes.

Rose Kerr: Have you finished that now?

Laura Skates: No, I’m still writing it up.
I’m nearly nearly there, hoping to submit it in maybe next month.

Rose Kerr: Was doing your PhD the first time that you’d focused in on carnivorous plants?

Laura Skates: I’ve actually done my honours research prior to that was on carnivorous plants. That one was more focused on I guess you’d call it an aquatic venus flytrap.

Rose Kerr: Wow. Where are they?

Laura Skates: So they can be found in Australia. That’s population up in the Kimberley. I’ve never seen it in the wild. But it’s also found in Asia, Africa and Europe.

Rose Kerr: Wow, that’s unreal. How like, what does it look like? Does it look like a traditional venus flytrap?

Laura Skates: So it’s got little snap traps like a venus flytrap but they’re much more tiny, so maybe few millimeters wide. And it’s actually aquatic because it floats on the surface of swamps and things like that.

Rose Kerr: Is it trying to eat mosquitoes?

Laura Skates: Yes. So it catches mosquito larvae in the water.

Rose Kerr: That’s unreal.

Laura Skates: Yeah.

Rose Kerr: Going into studying carnivorous plants. We’re gonna go way back. Okay. Have you always loved science?

Laura Skates: Yeah, I guess so. I guess more – I’ve always loved the natural world.

Rose Kerr: Yeah.

Laura Skates: And I suppose the science to do with that. I don’t know, I’ve always been interested in the environment, and especially growing up here in the southwest corner of WA, it’s such a great place for, you know, Bush walks and getting to know the plants we have here and animals and rocks and all that sort of stuff. So, yeah, it’s always been something that I’ve been interested in.

Rose Kerr: Yeah. And did you go on to do biology and stuff through school?

Laura Skates: Yes. So I found like, I guess, when I was in high school, my favorite t subjects were biology and English. So I was fascinated by the natural world and then also stories, which I guess is carried through to today as well. I remember it Primary School I, a lot of the projects that I really remember enjoying were about nature and stuff. So, we did one about bees and honey and that sort of thing. One about surviving in the wild…

Rose Kerr: Do you think you could? As a eight year old

Laura Skates: as an eight year old, not sure. But yeah, and even now as a 27 year old, I’m not sure. I’d need a lot of supplies.

Rose Kerr: At least you’d be able to identify which plants would try to eat you.

Laura Skates: That’s right. Yes, I would be safe on that front.

Rose Kerr: Do you find that a lot of people don’t really understand what a carnivorous plant is?

Laura Skates: In some ways? Yeah. So one of the common misconceptions I get is that people do often ask me, you know, are they dangerous for humans? Is there a chance of being caught by them? And I would say the answer is no, that usually pretty small. So, you know, humans aren’t their preferred prey. Yeah, I guess another common misconception people would have is about the actual traps themselves. A lot of people think that their flowers when they see them a lot of the different types of traps people say, oh, wow, that flowers amazing. It’s actually the leaf which is making up the trap.

Rose Kerr: Yeah. And do they also flower is there no need for flowers?

Laura Skates: Yes. So the flowers Yeah. They also have flowers and the flowers you know entirely different purpose, that’s for the reproduction side of things. But often carnivorous plants need insects for reproduction too, for you know, pollen transfer. So there is some interesting stuff going on with carnivorous plants to make sure that they separate where the trap is to where the flower is. So they’re not trapping the insects they need for pollination.

Rose Kerr: Yeah, wow. They have to grow in a way that separates the two even though there are so small sometimes?

Laura Skates: Yeah, so it can happen in different ways. Like sometimes the trap will be at the base of the plant and then the flowers will be on a long stalk. So you know by distance So far away, but it can also sometimes happen that the leaves will come out first and produce the traps and then they might die away and then the flower will come out later. So that’s that happens sometimes with some of our tuberous Drosera species in WA.

Rose Kerr: Yeah, that’s why I wanted to ask – how many carnivorous plant species do we actually have in Western Australia?

Laura Skates: in Western Australia? I think it’s somewhere between 100 and 200. I’m not sure the exact number but it’s quite a lot. A lot compared to other places. Definitely. We’re actually a global center of carnivorous plant diversity. So for example, in Europe, there’s, I think, three species of Drosera around there, also known as sundews, but here in WA, we’ve got, yeah, around maybe 100 species of Drosera.

Rose Kerr: Wow. Yeah.

Is a particular part of WA that has more of them?

Laura Skates: Yes. So they’re sort of concentrated in the southwest corner and up In the northern Kimberley region, so there’s sort of these two hotspots for carnivorous plants here.

Rose Kerr: Why are they particularly in those areas?

Laura Skates: So there’s a lot of reasons why they might be in those areas, I guess, but particularly the southwest corner is a biodiversity hotspot. So we have an incredible diversity of lots of different types of plants, not just carnivorous ones. But a big part of why we’ve got so many carnivorous plants is the soil here. So it’s really nutrient poor, really old. So a lot of our plants have found ways to adapt to that to get extra nutrients from other sources, and being carnivorous is just one of those ways. And I guess why we have them in the southwest and the Kimberley, but not so much in the middle, sort of part of Western Australia is to do with the climate. So in those areas, so in the middle, it’s a bit too dry and arid. They need -carnivorous plants- need a bit more water usually in order to grow and produce those amazing traps

Rose Kerr: With the sticky ones like, like sundews that have that sticky stuff on to trap the insects.

Laura Skates: Yeah,

Rose Kerr: what are that made of?

Laura Skates: So it’s a kind of mucilage I guess. And it’s sort of a water based, sticky, I think it’s got sugars in it and it’s got digestive enzymes that that are produced through those glands on the leaf surface. So it’s kind of a sticky, gluey, kind of substance. And yet when insects get stuck to it, they, you know, end up getting more and more trapped in the glue. And especially with the sundews, and actually, it’s not just a passive kind of trap. It’s actually an active trap. So those sticky tentacles wrapped around the prey, so cover even more in glue and, and then digest it.

Rose Kerr: That’s amazing.

Laura Skates: Yeah.

Rose Kerr: Honestly, now, you know so much about carnivorous plants, certainly a lot more than the average person. So once he graduated high school, what was the path that took you to this point?

Laura Skates: Yeah. Um, so I guess after high school, I started at university. I started off doing a double major, or double degree, I guess it was conservation biology and anthropology at the time. But after the first year, I found that I was really, really interested in plants in botany. I wasn’t so interested in studying animals because that seemed to involve a lot of dissections and things that I was a bit squeamish about. And I just found plants fascinated me because, you know, a lot of the time they are stuck in whatever particular spot they grow in, and they can’t just, you know, get up and go and find something to eat like they have to make do with what they’ve got around them. Well, you know, come up with these adaptations. So, I guess yeah, I found that I became so fascinated in plants that I switched my majors, I did conservation biology And botany. And so I dropped the anthropology. But now I sort of wish that I’d kept up a bit with it because I’m fascinated now by how people in plants interact. So I might have to go get my old textbooks and have another look.

Rose Kerr: Is there such thing as in an anthropologist in botany? Is there such a thing?

Laura Skates: I think there is. Yeah. I mean, I think there’s a lot of people that are studying sort of the human side of, you know, wildlife, including plants. Yeah, there’s heaps of research that is already out there about the history of botany and about how we can communicate botanical sciences better. Yeah, there’s, there’s a lot out there. So I’d love to find a research group to do more with that.

Rose Kerr: What do you say to people when they say plants are boring?

Laura Skates: Yeah, I yeah, I don’t know what to say. I guess that I just try and see if they they have a minute for me to try and change their mind. Because, yeah, I think, to me, plants are incredibly fascinating. And you know, it just takes having a closer look at plants around you and thinking about, like, how are they doing what they’re doing? You know, I think it can even be, you know, plants in your garden or in your salad bowl or whatever, you know, you can have a look and think, well, how did that grow like that? And even you go down south and you see those big Karri trees? How do they get so tall? You know, there’s so many curiosities around plants that I think if people took a moment to think about it a bit more, if they did think that they’re boring, they would actually think oh, wow, actually, that’s pretty cool.

Rose Kerr: I think it’s really made a difference in people’s perception of botanists. I obviously studied botany as well. And people weren’t particularly interested for the most part. But since the rise of houseplants It’s gone into fashion, it’s done wonders.

Laura Skates: Totally. Yes.

Rose Kerr: I find people ask you more questions because they’re like, I have a house plant. You know how to fix it.

Laura Skates: I do get questions like that. The unfortunate thing for me with that is that I’m not much of a gardener. Like, that’s not really what I studied. Um, I do have houseplants at home, mostly succulents and things that don’t require as much attention, shall we say? But yeah, I do get a lot of questions about especially how to grow carnivorous plants. And that’s really, oh, that’s not my area. Like I, I wish that I was better at growing them. But yeah, I’d have to, I’d have to look into it a bit more. I’m more interested in how they grow in the wild. And you know, what these native species are doing in their, you know, natural habitats. So most of my research has actually been like, yeah, getting out there into the wild and seeing what they do out there. But yeah, I guess houseplants has been a big shift.

Rose Kerr: Can you grow carnivorous plants in a pot? I didn’t think you could.

Laura Skates: Yes, so. I mean, yeah, people do grow them in all sorts of things. I suppose one of the considerations is like I think a lot of people grow them in in pots within like a shallow tray of water so that they can suck up the water that way. But again, it’s not really not really my area.

Rose Kerr: I didn’t realize it was, I guess legals the wrong word, I didn’t realize you could buy them.

Laura Skates: Well you can I guess from like places like Bunnings and Waldecks stock like Venus flytraps and Nepenthes, pitcher plants and that sort of thing. And there are a lot of local other nurseries that sell carnivorous plants. But that is a really good point that one of the unfortunate realities for carnivorous plants is that they sometimes get poached from the wild. Yeah, so especially like the Venus flytrap in America. There have been a lot of cases of people going out and just digging up plants from the wild and then you know, selling them online or things like that. So you know if if you do grow them, it’s it’s good to be careful about where you source your plants from And just you know, making sure that you hopefully aren’t contributing to illegal collections and stuff like that.

Rose Kerr: Yeah, I have heard that happen with other species of things like orchids.

Laura Skates: Yes. Yeah, it definitely happens a lot with orchids as well. And it’s really sad because I guess, you know, it can sometimes happen that, you know, there’s lots of like wildflower groups and stuff on on Facebook and things like that. And people might post in there, like I saw this amazing plant and if they say the location of where they saw it, sometimes that means that other people will then go there and dig the plants up. And especially with orchids, that’s it’s really, really bad because all kids you know, they rely on often fungi in the soil and particular pollinators, Sophie, dig them out and take them home. They’re not really gonna survive anyway. Yeah. So it’s better, you know, if we just leave them where they growing and you know, and of course, they also play roles in that ecosystem. So if you take them out, then you know, you’re sort of damaging that part of the ecosystem?

Rose Kerr: I wonder what the fine is for taking them.

Laura Skates: I’m not sure exactly. But yeah, there is definitely fines for collecting plants in especially like national parks and stuff, especially here in WA. So hopefully that’s a bit of a deterrent for people.

Rose Kerr: Yeah, take photos. You don’t need to take it with you

Laura Skates: Exactly.
Yes, take photos or you know, go and do an illustration in the wild stuff like that. Like, there’s so many ways you can go and appreciate and enjoy these plants without digging them up.

Rose Kerr: in botany, you learn about so many different, particularly vegetation types or different ecosystems. How did you make the decision and become inspired to focus on carnivorous plants?

Laura Skates: Yeah, that’s a good question. I guess what really fascinated me was ways that plants have adapted to, you know, difficult circumstances, for growing and that sort of thing. So, as I said, especially here in the southwest, so many of our plants have had to adapt to things like poor soil nutrient conditions to fire to salt tolerance, that sort of thing. And I guess yeah, the nutrients one always fascinated me when I was looking for an honours project. I basically was looking for something to do with either carnivorous plants, parasitic plants or micro heterotrophic plants.

Rose Kerr: What is that?

Laura Skates: That is basically plants that feed on fungi. So like orchids could be considered under that.

Rose Kerr: Wow. So for an entire botany degree. I never heard that term before.

Laura Skates: I really came across that term in them in recent years, but yeah, that’s sort of what they they call those.

Rose Kerr: And then you fell into carnivorous plants?

Laura Skates: Yes. Luckily not literally.

Rose Kerr: Laura, I have a weird question do carnivorous plants poo?

Laura Skates: I mean, they excrete… Do they excrete things? but in terms of pooing… Ah, that’s a good question. I mean they they do sometimes excrete things like, like salt tolerant plants will take up a bunch of salty water and then they’ll excrete the salt out of their leaves like, and I guess you could call that pooing. Yeah, I might have to read up on that.

Rose Kerr: When you’ve done field work, obviously, well, this podcast is recorded in the southwest, so you probably don’t have to travel too far. But where have you gone to look at carnivorous plants all over WA, like where are some of the places?

Laura Skates: Yeah, so I’ve I’ve travelled all around the southwest corner so you know, up to Kalbarri National Park down to Albany… Over east towards like Hyden. They’re pretty much everywhere and even, you know, in the Perth hills really close by. I’ve been to all sorts of places and you can see kind of plants growing in pretty much any bit of bush land in the southwest corner. But I’ve also been lucky enough to get to go up to the Kimberley region two times. And that was amazing because it’s such a spot we were in just felt so pristine. And it was a completely different sort of vegetation to what I was used to. And completely different set of carnivorous plants species up there. Although, same genera of plants as you would find down here. But yeah, so I’ve been around those I’ve not unfortunately been to a lot of places outside of WA to see carnivorous plants in the wild. It’s sort of on my botany bucket list, you know, to go and see a few species in other parts of the world in their natural habitats. But um, yeah, I’ve done plenty of WA.

Rose Kerr: What does a day in fieldwork look like for you? What is it like, because I think if you’ve never been out in the field for study or for work, it’s quite a strange experience. And it does vary from different parts of botany. Yeah, what do you do if you’re out in the field and researching.

Laura Skates: So for me for my research, it would basically be driving out to a particular site and finding a spot that has an abundance of carnivorous plants there. And for my research, it involved collecting leaf samples. So I would take a few leaves from a few different kinds of carnivorous plants not the whole plant usually just you know, again don’t want to over collect plants in the wild and I did need to have a license, you know, in order to make those collections. But yeah, collecting a few leaf samples from the carnivorous plants and from non carnivorous plants in the same habitat and also some insects and some soil. And you know, basically you you get all these samples, you put them into paper envelopes or bags and you label them and you take down you know, GPS coordinates and your sort of description of the habitat you’re in. And that was pretty much it for my fieldwork like it was very simple. Just making some collections that I could then analyze later in the lab, but I guess, you know, one of the things with field work, especially here in WA is safety and that sort of thing. And I said before about, people often ask about, you know, is it dangerous, you know, working on carnivorous plants? And yeah, it’s like the plants aren’t the dangerous part. It’s more things like you know, the sun and making sure that you’re, you know, protected from the heat and sunburn, looking out for snakes even though yeah, in all my years of fieldwork, I’ve actually never seen a snake and I don’t know if I’m just not looking hard enough. And yeah, and you come across a lot of things like spiders, but I think a lot of people get scared about that sort of thing. And obviously, there are reasons to, to be careful, but oftentimes, yeah, I just see these spiders and I’m like, oh, wow, it’s so cool. As long as you just you know, keep your distance I guess it’s usually fine.

Rose Kerr: Do you like fieldwork?

Laura Skates: I yeah, I really like fieldwork. It’s so nice to get out into the bush and, you know, to see all these plants and especially because if you go at different times of year, you see completely different plants, you know, and different flowers coming out at different times a year and that sort of thing. And it’s just nice to, you know, be out in the sunshine or, you know, in the rain if that’s what’s the case that day.

Rose Kerr: I mean, you’re in it.

Laura Skates: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Yeah, I have had some interesting situations like few times, me and my fieldwork volunteers who come and assist me. We’ve camped out for a few nights if we’re going to, you know, distant sort of places. And I did have one really unfortunate camping incident where it was raining and my tent had a hole in it. And I went out to try and patch it up and I got my hair stuck in the zipper.

I was just like, really, you’re gonna do this to me.

Rose Kerr: Yeah, was it like day one of that trip?

Laura Skates: Yeah, I think so it was like pretty early on. Yeah, this is a bad omen for the rest of the trip.

Rose Kerr: Do you have a favorite field trip you’ve ever been on?

Laura Skates: Um, probably the ones where I got to go up to the Kimberley. Yeah, it was just such a fascinating, you know, I felt very lucky that I got to go up there. And part of the trip involved, you know, flying over these really remote parts of the Kimberley to the remote field station where we were based, and just seeing the landscape from up there was incredible. And also Yeah, just being down, you know, on the ground, it was amazing as well. One of the best things about those trips was we had a, there was a station dog Bonnie. She was super cute, and she would come out with us every day, she would sort of chase us along to all of our field sites and just sort of be there. You know, I feel like she was part of the team and protecting us and by the end of the day, she would usually be so tired that she would sit on the back of the quad bike with us to get back to the station.

Rose Kerr: That’s fun! You were out on the quad bike to find them?

Laura Skates: Yeah. So there were there were sort of trails that we would follow in the quad bikes to get out to our sites. And yeah, so it was, it was really cool.

Rose Kerr: I always find that funny how science is sometimes seen as something thats always stuck in the lab where you’re stuck in a computer or even stuck in glasshouses, which I’m sure you’ve spent plenty of time in. Yeah, yeah. And then reality sometimes it’s like, I don’t know motorbikes, doing adventure stuff.

Laura Skates: Exactly.

Yeah, I mean, definitely, fieldwork can be really adventurous. And there’s so many awesome tales of fieldwork adventures. And I think it’s actually a book that’s about like fieldwork fails or something like that. We need to find that. Yeah, yeah. I think it’s illustrated and Yeah, hilarious.

Rose Kerr: When you’re in the lab, how do you analyze the samples?

Laura Skates: So I guess the first part of that is that I actually the lab that I was in was in Germany. Oh, yeah. I was really lucky that one of my supervisors is based at a lab and Germany in the University of Beyreuth, which is like a smallish town in Bavaria. And so I got to all of the samples that I collected, I would first of all dry them in an oven here so that they are, you know, all dried out, and then I would take them to the lab in Germany,

Rose Kerr: how do you even declare that?

Were they like why does this strange lady have pieces of plants in her bag?

Laura Skates: Yeah, well, so. I guess when you’re coming into Western Australia, there’s definitely, you know, restrictions on on that sort of thing, but I think it’s less, you know, it’s less restricted if you’re taking things out and for research purposes. So, you know, we had out all the necessary paperwork and things like that, but it wasn’t Yeah, it wasn’t really a problem. I mean, it would have been a problem I think if we were taking any samples of species which were, like endangered or like on the critically endangered or threatened list, but then you have to go through a different sort of protocol. But yeah, for for what I was doing, it was Yeah, it was fine.

Rose Kerr: So the test that you did over in Germany. Was that using equipment and stuff that you didn’t have here? Or is this just a really awesome case where you got to do it there for the sake of it?

Laura Skates: it’s kind of a really awesome case for I got to do it there. We do have facilities in WA but it actually, it worked out so that, you know, going over there, I, I, it’s actually a bit cheaper to do it at the lab that I was at over there. But also, more importantly than that, it was the opportunity to work with this professor, Professor Gaballah, who is like a world renowned expert in stable isotope analysis, which is the kind of analysis I was doing. And he actually wrote one of the, or co-wrote one of the first papers about carnivorous plants and using the stable isotope analysis that I use. So yeah, before I’d even met him, I read this paper and thought this is cool, I’d love to do research about this kind of stuff. So yeah, so it was just a really lucky situation. He actually was in Perth, I think was in 2014 which is when I was finishing my honors research, and he is friends with one of my honours supervisors, and yeah, he was keen to have a student to work on, you know, some sort of collaboration. And yeah, lucky for me, my honest supervisors thought, Oh, yeah, that would that would work out.

Rose Kerr: So cool! So there’s carnivorous plants in Germany?

Laura Skates: They do. Yes. So they have some Drosera species, they have Pinguicula which also have a sticky trap like Drosera but totally, you know, not related closely. And they also have Utricularia, which are the bladder warts which is a great name and they’ve got a suction trap. And they might have some others, but those are the ones that i’m i’ve seen those ones at least.

Rose Kerr: Yeah, were the people in those labs interested by the work you were doing?

Laura Skates: Oh, yeah, totally. Um, and some of them were also doing research about the native German carnivorous plant species. And also doing research about like orchids in in Germany and in Europe, and all sorts of other things as well, like the stable isotope analyses could be used for all sorts of things someone was working on. Something to do with like forensics. And also on like food quality testing. Yeah, there’s so many different applications for it.

Rose Kerr: Yeah. How long did you get to spend there all up?

Laura Skates: So I went there three times during my PhD, sometimes that was like, alongside going to a conference in Europe and tacking on that as well. Um, and yeah, I spent about three months each time over there working on the samples and doing some writing while I was there as well.

Rose Kerr: So what point are you up to now in your research?

Laura Skates: Now I’m at sort of the pointy end – I’m trying to finish writing it all up. So I’ve got all my data, and I’ve done, you know, all the analyses, and I’m just trying to get them into sort of ship-shape for papers and for chapters of my PhD thesis, and yeah, it’s it’s interesting, sort of getting the stories now with as the research is sort of built up, and and I can actually see like, Oh, this is the answer to that question that I was wondering at the beginning of my PhD.

Rose Kerr: Coming back to the start again!

Laura Skates: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. And it’s, it’s really cool, actually, to go back to the beginning, you know, some of my notes back in 2015. When I started and to think, what were the questions I was really fascinated by then. Because, you know, along the way or PhD is a long journey, and you can sort of forget, I guess, like, what was the original thing that got me passionate about this and it’s coming back to that at the end is is really good as well, especially for motivation for writing.

Rose Kerr: What were some of those questions that your PhD is trying to answer?

Laura Skates: For me, like some of the questions that I was really fascinated by and really wanted to try and contribute to in my PhD, were around the diversity of carnivorous plants that we have and why so especially with, like the Droseras that we’ve talked about, we do have so many species, and they come in all different shapes and sizes. You know, we’ve got ones that are the size of a $2 coin. And then others, which are climbing up to a meter in height. Yeah, so it’s a really varied group. And I wanted to sort of know, well, yeah, like, why is this so much diversification? And what is the difference in all of these in terms of their nutritional ecology? And what can that maybe teach us a little bit about how and why they might have evolved in all these different ways. So yeah, that was a big question that I was interested in. Another one has to do with the way that these plants interact with other species in their ecosystem. So there’s a particular plant, which has become a big focus for me in my PhD. The group is called Byblis.

Rose Kerr: Okay.

Laura Skates: They’re also known as the rainbow plants. That’s their common name. Well, they the reason why they called that is because they’ve also got these sticky leaves to capture prey. And sometimes, you know, if you see like a kind of a field of them with the sticky drops, and it’s in the right level of sunshine, kind of shimmers. Rainbow kind of shimmer. So yes, very pretty. Until you look really, really close and you see all the bugs. Yeah. Um, but yeah, this particular plant. Yeah, even when you do look really close, and you see all these bugs stuck in the sticky, you know, here’s the Byblis plant. You’ll also see another bug on that plant which isn’t stuck. It’s actually walking around on the sticky leaves. And it was sort of this, you know, a question of, well, what’s going on there, that, you know, you’ve got a bug that’s not being trapped. does it play a role in the plant’s ecology? You know, in terms of its nutrition? So I’ve been trying to look at, well, does this bug, you know, it feeds on the insects that have been caught by the plants? So, yeah, sort of scavenger, I guess, you know, and it seems to live on the plant. And so I was curious whether, you know, is it kind of just stealing nutrients away from the plant by eating away on the on the leaves? Oh, could it maybe be contributing a bit back to the plant through its poop? Yeah, sort of fertilizer directly onto the plants leaves. And so yeah, I’ve been trying to try to help answer that question a little bit with my PhD research as well.

Rose Kerr: Do you have any ideas?

Laura Skates: I do a bit. What I found, I guess is that it’s maybe a little bit more complicated because You know, the plant can digest prey on its own. It also produces digestive enzymes. Oh, well, I guess and/or the bug that lives on the plant can digest the prey. So it’s sort of a more complex question to figure out, well, how much is coming directly from the plants work and how much is coming sort of indirectly through the bugs work? And yeah, so I think I think we need to do a bit more study on it to really tease that apart.

Rose Kerr: Outside of doing your PhD, I know you love doing science communication.

Laura Skates: Yes.

Rose Kerr: And you’ve done quite a bit of public speaking.

Laura Skates: Yeah. I mean, I love talking about plants and especially carnivorous plants, in case you can’t tell from this, and yeah, I often give talks for like local societies and things like that. Yeah. And like the naturalist club and the Friends of Kings Park and those sorts of groups and also sometimes for like, schools and community sort of groups. Like I gave a talk for the Perth Science Festival a couple years ago. And yeah, I love it because it’s so much fun. And I you know, what I found is that people of all different ages and backgrounds, all of them are at least a little bit fascinated by carnivorous plants. And so it’s sort of fun as well, because it’s like a gateway to then talking about other cool plants too. And just getting people to think like back to that plants boring. Like, Oh, no, actually, these plants are pretty cool. And if these plants are cool, then actually also these other plants are cool, too.

yeah, I love it.

Rose Kerr: Do you ever find people are surprised by how many we have in WA? so I think sometimes people picture just the Venus flytrap or that one from Mario that comes

Laura Skates: Yeah, yeah. The Pirana plant!

Rose Kerr: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, Are people suprised?

Laura Skates: Yeah, quite often, like I mean, I guess I should say some people are already well aware of the fact that we have so many carnivorous plants here and it’s fun to talk to those people just about to get into more nitty gritty detail, but then other people that aren’t as familiar with our native plants or native carnivorous plants. Yeah, they they’re shocked, you know, to find out that we have so many here and especially that there’s so many different types as well, like, people do often think of the Venus flytrap, which has the snap trap mechanism. But there’s actually four other different types of traps. And on top of that, there’s like, Oh, I guess within that there’s like 800 different species around the world and popping up in all sorts of different parts of the, you know, evolutionary history of plants. So carnivorous plants, actually, it’s not just sort of one time that kind of response have evolved. There’s actually multiple points that carnivorous plants have popped up. And I think, yeah, the latest estimate is maybe about 10 different times that carnivory has evolved in the plant kingdom.

Rose Kerr: That’s amazing. What are some of the challenges of communicating botany to people to that people? Are people generally pretty interested? Or do you have to kind of find ways to make it relevant?

Laura Skates: Yeah, sometimes depends on the group that I’m talking to. So I mean, sometimes if I’m talking to people, I’m like, if it’s for a talk, they’re obviously already interested to learn about plants and carnivorous plants. But if it’s more of that, on the spot, sci comm, where you just sort of talking to someone at a party or something, and they ask about what you do. And I actually find quite often when I tell people, I’m a botanist, they’re a bit like, Oh, what is what is it? You know, so, that’s always quite fun that you get to sort of explain a little bit more about about that, and then segue into how cool plants are. But yeah, I guess I do try and find ways to make it relevant to the person that I’m talking to. And sometimes that’ll mean you know, coming at it from Um, a different angle, like a historical angle, for example, in talking about Charles Darwin and how fascinated he was by carnivorous plants. Well, maybe if they’re really interested in bushwalking then but for other reasons, and I can be like all well, you know, you could see plants carnivorous plants out there as well. Yeah, yeah, it’s, it can be hard sometimes, but I find that I don’t know. I’m usually so enthusiastic that other people end up being like, Okay, cool. Like, yeah.

Rose Kerr: Yeah, good point. Yeah. If you sound like you enjoy what you do, then

Laura Skates: yeah, which I really do.

Rose Kerr: Yeah, that’s really good. Is it something that you think you’ll keep researching forever?

Laura Skates: Oh, I would love to keep researching about carnivorous plants and other cool plants. Yeah, I mean, I guess in some ways, it’s sort of like I would love to do that. But the academic world is a little bit tricky sometimes. So I’m currently trying to, you know, apply for postdocs and things like that to keep working on carnivorous plants and and I’d love to do more research about how people and carnivorous plants interact. But yeah, it’s it can be a bit tricky on the postdoc job market. So I don’t know if anyone’s listening….!

Rose Kerr: As much as they’re difficult opportunities to get they can be so wide and varied and exciting.

Laura Skates: Yeah, for sure. Yeah. And I mean, that’s the thing. Like, it would be amazing to be able to keep researching this thing that I’m passionate about. And there’s definitely some downsides of the world of academia. But you know, the positive is that you get to study something you really fascinated by. And I would love to do that. I mean, I guess, in the end, as well, I’m also really keen on science communication. So if I ended up doing more work in that space, I’d be completely happy with that as well. So I guess yeah, I suppose there’s a few things that I’d, I’d really love to do in my, in my lifetime to do with carnivorous plants. And I don’t know exactly how that would be though research or if they were, you know, Maybe writing a book or something like that, but I definitely want to keep working on them. Yeah, in the future.

Rose Kerr: Yeah. I can see why they’re so excited about that. Yeah, yeah. Is there a carnivorous plant in the world you wish you could go and see, like it’s on your list to go and find?

Laura Skates: Oh, definitely, I guess one that I would love to seen in the wild, although I don’t know how rare this one actually is, would be a Nepenthes species, which is named after David Attenborough.

Rose Kerr: Wow!

Laura Skates: Nepenthes attenboroughii

yes. I’d love to see that one. I think that one’s in Borneo.

Rose Kerr: What does it actually like?

Laura Skates: So it’s a it’s a big picture plant. So it kind of looks like a jug of water, I guess, with a little lid. And it’s filled with, you know, a pool of digestive juices that insects fall into. Yeah, yeah. There’s heaps of different Nepenthes actually, which some of them have really fascinating interactions with animals. So inthe same way I was talking about Byblis and how it has this bug that crawls on it and eats the other insects. There’s a lot of Nepenthes that have like symbiotic relationships with animals. There’s one that has a tree shrew just kind of like a like mousey sort of looking thing, which sits on the rim of the pitcher and it poops into the plant and it feeds as well on the nectar underneath the lid of the plant so it’s sort of a kitchen and bathroom all in one

Rose Kerr: wow! where’s that?

Laura Skates: yeah I think Borneo as well. Yes. Yeah. Yeah, so Borneo is on my list definitely. I think that’s also where you can see Rafflesia which is the biggest not carnivorous plant but the biggest flower in the world. You know, the one that looks like a Pokemon I think. Wow. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. smell bad. smells really bad. And that’s to attract pollinators. Yeah.

Rose Kerr: What do you wish people knew about carnivorous plants?

Laura Skates: I guess it’s just how beautiful they can be like, I think often carnivorous plants, you know, in popular culture, they’re portrayed as these man eating monsters. And I think in reality, they’re actually really, really beautiful plants. They’re worth admiring and and especially for what they do in the wild, like, you know, they have a place in, in the ecosystems that they’re in. And so appreciating them for the beauty and the ecological value, I think is something that I wish more people would think like, how amazing they are in their natural habitats.

Rose Kerr: Are carnivorous plants endangered or threatened at all?

Laura Skates: Yes, so yeah, so there’s, you know, there’s about 800 different species worldwide and different species are threatened by different things. But they there was a kind of global review of threats to carnivorous plants, and some of the big things that came up in that were things like obviously, habitat loss, so you know, When we clear land, we’re clearing habitat for the species and also things like pollution. So, you know, a lot of carnivorous plants are very sensitive to their environment. So if you have a lot of runoff from like agricultural, urban or industrial places, getting into an ecosystem, it can totally change the sort of the soil chemistry and the hydrology and things like that. And that can really impact carnivorous plants. And then yeah, the sort of illegal collection side of things is another big impact, especially for some of the more iconic species of kind of plants, the ones that are really popular in cultivation, like the Venus flytrap and the different Nepenthes species and that sort of thing. And that’s a really, it’s a tricky problem to solve. And it’s such a, you know, it’s a it’s a global issue as well. So, yeah, that would be something that you know if I could do research in the future, about how to better protect and conserve carnivorous plants and other plants in the wild. That would be that’d be really cool as well.

Rose Kerr: Now this is my arguably my favorite part of the podcast. I would like to know a fun fact about carnivorous plants.

Laura Skates: My fun fact is that Charles Darwin did some of the earliest scientific research on carnivorous plants, he actually wrote a whole book called insectivorous plants, and detailed all sorts of weird experiments that he did like feeding the plants, little bits of meat or egg or whatever like that just to see how they’d react. Yes, so like if they were fed things like metal eggs and the plants would react. So he was looking at Drosera rotundifolia, which is a round leaf sundew, and the little sticky tentacles would wrap around if it was a bit of meat. But he also tried putting things like a bit of sand or glass or you know, stuff like that and they didn’t react. So yeah he was able to find that. Yeah, it was, um, substances that, you know, have like nitrogen in them, like proteins and stuff like that is what the plant reacts to. So it’s Yeah, pretty cool. That’s amazing. Yeah.

Rose Kerr: And goes to show how far back the interest in them goes.

Laura Skates: Yeah, definitely. And you know there’s there’s mention of different kinds of plants earlier than that as well like in terms of taxonomy and that sort of thing. But I think, yeah, Darwin was one of the first to show that, yeah, actually, these plants are kind of turning the tables on that natural trophic like food, web order sort of thing. And yeah, it was sort of, you know, is a bit of a tricky thing at the time as well, because he was sort of saying, you know, these plants are going against that natural order of things. But I also want to mention here that, you know, Charles Darwin wasn’t alone in doing research on carnivorous plants. He often gets a lot of the limelight of that early research, but there was a woman called Mary Treat, who also did some really cool research on carnivorous plants that around the same time, and she was actually a colleague of Darwins and they wrote letters back and forth.

Rose Kerr: And he got all the credit?

Laura Skates: Well, yeah, I guess he gets more of the limelight these days, but I’m trying to like every time I talk about carnivorous plants from now on, I want to try and sneak in some of the amazing women that have done research on carnivorous plants throughout history. And yet Mary Treats a really cool one for sure.

Rose Kerr: And I have no doubt in the future your name will be amongst those names.

Laura Skates: Oh, that would be nice.

Rose Kerr: Thank you so much for joining us today.

Laura Skates: Thanks for having me.

Rose Kerr: Thank you for listening to the particle podcast. Check out more of our content on all the socials as well as at This episode was recorded in the wonderful science hub that is Western Australia. particle is powered by Scitech.

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Rockwell McGellin
About the author
Rockwell McGellin
Rockwell is a jack of all trades with a Masters in science communication. He likes space, beer, and sciencey t-shirts. Yes, Rocky is fine for short.
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Rockwell is a jack of all trades with a Masters in science communication. He likes space, beer, and sciencey t-shirts. Yes, Rocky is fine for short.
View articles