A flash of color mingles with the scent of sweet perfume in the air. The innocent draws closer, curious about the beauty that beckons. In but an instant, the struggle is over. The killer strikes again. What might read as a suspense thriller is life in the tropical rainforest, which hides some of the most lethal, bizarre and colorful of both plants and animals. Insect-eating tropical plants -- properly called carnivorous -- are among the most cunning killers on earth. Growing in an environment that is often savage and extreme in nature, carnivorous plants trap and kill insects to small animals.
With topsoil averaging only 1 or 2 inches in depth, the soil in a tropical rainforest, which is more than 100 million years old, is generally nutrient deprived. The tropical pitcher plant compensates for the lack of food by trapping -- and eating -- its own. Belonging to the large and often endangered carnivorous genus nepenthaceae, the plant offers colorful, tube-shaped leaves that form a rudimentary "pitcher." The plant lures its prey in with the scent of nectar -- in reality, a pool of digestive juices, from which there is no escape. Among the largest of carnivorous plants, pitcher plants have even killed rodents such as rats.
With dewy drops glistening on reddish tinted leaves, the sundew, from the genus droseras, proves that beauty does kill. Tiny hairs on the sundew's leaves produce and offer a sticky, sweet nectar to insect victims. Once caught, the insects struggle, triggering tentacles of leaves to wrap around and ultimately either exhaust or suffocate the prey. Next, the sundew secretes digestive juices that eat the insect slowly. Meanwhile, high above the sundew, beautiful flowers burst into bloom, opening early in the morning and fading away in hours. Sundews, like pitcher plants, grow in a variety of climates around the world. In fact, sundews comprise 25 percent of all carnivorous plants.
Butterworts look the least like a murderous carnivore, according to the "Wisconsin Natural Resources" magazine, but they are just as deadly. The butterwort, of the genus pinguicula, produces beautiful, brightly colored flowers that draw insects in, but it's the leaves that kill; covered in a greasy-feeling substance, they quickly trap the doomed insect until the leaves can wrap around -- and eat -- their prey (the leaves move very slowly, unlike a venus flytrap, and can take an hour to engulf the insect). Thus, like the sundew, the insect likely dies of exhaustion before being killed.
Insects, worms and fish also find death underwater when they encounter the bladderwort, a member of the genus utricularia. Bladderwort thrives in the waters of the tropical rainforests and comprises two-thirds of all carnivorous plants worldwide. The only carnivorous plant featuring a true trapdoor, the bladderwort is also extremely fast. Little sacs sprout from the plant, floating in the water. Glands cause water to be pumped out, creating a flat, leaflike appearance with a vacuum inside the trap. Trigger hairs surround the sac, and when touched by a passing water insect, spring into action. A one-way door quickly swings open, toward the inside of the sac, and water rushes in -- along with the hapless insect. Quickly shutting the door again, the bladderwort expels water while keeping its meal inside. Digestive enzymes quickly go to work, and the cycle begins again.