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Butterfly was discovered trapped in a pitcher plant in bog near Hosford, Florida

  Gulf fritillary butterfly escapes grasp
 of a carnivorous pitcher plant in bog

By Michael E. Abrams

Lessons in survival are all around us. Speed, ability to fly, and other defenses and adaptations ranging from color to taste give insects a range of escape avenues.

But the final moment comes in many disguises.

It was a mild, cloudless November noon as we mucked into our favorite watery bog near Hosford in Liberty County, home to venus flytraps, sundews and assorted carnivorous plants. We stopped to examine one of tall white-topped pitcher plants that have a license to cannibalize there.

Sarracenia leucophylla blooms in North Florida
with its maroon flower
We adjusted its operculum or large flap that keeps the rain out.

There we witnessed a harsh drama in one of nature's chambers of death.

A large orange butterfly was trapped down its throat, captured by one of the most ingenious plants on earth.

The pitcher plant is of the legendary family of botanical carnivores that lures insects to their deaths with its sweet nectar. Well-nourished plants can grow as high as three feet or more.
The insects, which cannot get out because of slippery hairs on the throat of the plant, ultimately are dissolved into a diabolical milkshake for the plant which requires nitrogen to survive in the acid bogs.

We'd seen "love bugs" and crickets and such trapped in the plants, but this was the largest insect we had ever seen trapped. But wait!  As we examined the Sarracenia leucophylla or white-topped pitcher plant, and set up to take a picture, we noticed that the butterfly was moving.

Obviously, it had just been captured by the plant.

We reached gingerly into the throat of the plant with a hand and gradually pulled the insect from its tomb.

Butterfly quickly climbed onto blade of plant

We placed it on the ground and it quickly climbed the nearest green blade.  While it did not fly, one could see that it was attempting to flap its wings, which had been torn in the ordeal.

When we left the bog, the butterfly was still clinging to the blade of grass, and we hope eventually made its way back into the air. While it is said by the poet that nature is 'red in tooth and claw,' and there is something to the idea of the survival of the fittest, there is also the possibility of intervention.

This species of butterfly was named Agraulis vanillae by Linnaeus, 1758. It was Linnaeus who also formalized the name for the genus Sarracenia, although the leucophylla was named later by Rafinesque. Michel Sarrazin, who first used the name, was the father of Canadian botany and lived in late 17th Century. These plants grow into Canada.

We often see gulf fritillaries on the autumn flowers, and their caterpillars love passionflower  vines. The whole family of butterflies called the Heliconiidae are associated with passiflora in North and South America.

A fascinating website on pitcher plants by naturalist Barry Rice can be found at where he also discusses his new book.

Picture was taken with Nikon D40x using 18-55 mm lens, with help of corded flash attachment

All pictures copyright Michael E. Abrams, 2007

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