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Davis, California

Saturday, May 18, 2024

Column: The House Always Wins

Even if you don’t believe in evolution, you can’t deny that there are some truly amazing organisms that populate our planet. And if you don’t believe in evolution, I have some choice words for you … another time perhaps. When you ask someone to think of the most majestic creature on earth, perhaps they will say the lion, or the Bengal tiger, or maybe the orca.

If you ask this same person about the smartest organism on earth, maybe they will say the dolphin, an ant colony, or in rare cases, they might say humans. The pattern I have noticed is that when anyone is asked about the most amazing organisms on earth, no one ever thinks to mention the plants.

I can name three plants off the top of my head that are as beautiful as a tiger, as strong and resilient as an orca and as well adapted to their environments as humans. And one of these in particular, is my personal all time favorite … but I’ll save that surprise for later.

The saguaro cactus. It inhabits one of the harshest regions on earth, the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. Nighttime temperatures can reach freezing, sometimes dropping below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. During the day, temperatures can reach 135 degrees … in the shade. Only about 100 animal species call this place home, yet the saguaro cactus thrives here, often growing to heights of 60 feet.

Harsh climates are often indicative of very small plant and animal species. Small size allows better temperature regulation and less water consumption, so it’s strange that a plant can reach such a size here. It has developed a slew of defenses to protect it from the weather and other interested parties. Sharp spines and a thick wax coating prevent water loss and prevent birds from poking holes that would dry the plant out.

Yet this plant also has to reproduce, and so once a year, it produces hundreds of small, highly sugary fruits to entice birds to eat them and carry the seeds far away, preventing competition between parent and offspring.

Some people think that cockroaches are the most resilient of all terrestrial life on earth. But drop that cockroach into a bucket of salt water and see how long it lasts. Even the most hearty of trees wither and die when exposed to salt water, but not so for the the red mangrove.

While most trees require fresh water to survive, the red mangrove makes its home on the sandy shores of tropical regions across the planet. This habitat results in the the mangrove roots being completely submerged in salt water every high tide. While this would kill any other terrestrial plant, pores on the roots, along with a specialized vascular system, transfer all of the salt within the plant to a few sacrificial leaves. These leaves then turn yellow, die and fall off, leaving the rest of the plant salt-free. This is comparable to a pack-a-day smoker growing special arteries that transport all the smoke harmlessly to a few strands of sacrificial hair. Scoreboard: hypothetical evolution, 1. Emphysema, 0.

And now for my personal favorite, the plant of nightmares (of flies), the Venus flytrap. The flytrap occupies one of the deadest environments on the planet — the salty, hot, humid, oxygen-deprived, nitrogen-deficient, stagnant bogs of the Everglades. There are only a few species of plant that have evolved to live here, and most of them are carnivorous.

The Venus flytrap is the casino of the plant world. It provides enough enticing reward to keep the flies coming back for more, but on a long enough timeline, the house always wins. The plant has developed such a precise and exact method of feeding that even after millions of years, its primary prey, the fly, has still not evolved to avoid the flytrap’s deadly allure.

Let’s take this casino metaphor a little further. Flytraps produce nectar inside their traps, which entices insects to come feed … the promise of a sugary payout is more than enough to bring insects through the door. Unfortunately for the insect, this is often a one-way trip. Should the fly escape with its life, it will be none the wiser that it has had a close brush with death. When the fly returns time and again, the odds begin stacking in the plants’ favor.

Enough flies escape that future generations are not wary of the plant’s scent, but the plant takes more than enough victims to sustain itself … much like a casino.

The flytrap, like the casino, is so successful not because it wins every time, but because it loses strategically and often enough that the flies keep playing the game. We humans like to believe that we animals make the rules, but the reality of the situation is that plants have been around far far longer than we have, and will still be here long after the strongest tiger, the biggest orca and the smartest dolphin are all gone.

HUDSON LOFCHIE dreams of having an army of flytraps at his disposal. Until then, he can be reached at science@theaggie.org.


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