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August: Carnivorous Plants

Pitcher-plants and sundews supplement their diet by trapping and digesting insects.

pitcher plant

Plants that eat insects, called carnivorous or insectivorous plants, come in multiple species, many of which are now hovering on the brink of extinction. The widespread collection of wild specimens, the acceleration of habitat destruction and landfill operations in swampy areas are just a few of the factors that are imperiling several increasingly rare insect-eating plants in the United States.

Insectivorous plants have evolved a number of astounding adaptations to their native environments, chief among them the ability to supplement insufficient nitrogen in the poor soils they inhabit by catching and digesting nitrogen-rich insects.

Pitcher plants, which are insect-eaters that thrive in the wetlands of eastern North America, sport tubular leaves formed into trumpet-shaped receptacles for capturing insect prey. The top part of the pitcher plant, which can grow up to a foot long, looks like a bright red and purple resplendent flower. The plant uses nectar to attract insects, which drop into the receptacle if they crawl over the lip of the tube. Downward-pointing hairs inside the tubular leaves stop insects from climbing out once they alight, and liquid in the bottom of the tubes contains enzymatic digestive juices that disintegrate and consume the animal once it wears itself out trying to escape. Older pitcher plants' leaves are often littered with the debris of past meals -- the dried-out exoskeletons of unfortunate prey. Ants make up the main part of the pitcher's diet, though the plant sometimes snags flies, wasps, crickets and spiders as well.

Venus flytrapSundews, another kind of insectivorous plant found in the Harbor Bight region, feature elliptical or circular blades on slim stalks. Each blade has tentacles, the tips of which feature a large gland that produces a bead of mucilage resembling a dew drop, visible even in hot dry weather due to its sparkle. When insects touch a tentacle, glands in the plant produce an enzymatic secretion and an acid, and in seconds the tentacles encircle the unlucky insect and pull it into the pool of liquid. After a day or two, digestion of the prey's soft tissue is complete; the tentacles extend again and release the empty exoskeleton, which may drift off in the wind or be washed off in a downpour.

Where to See Them: New Jersey's Pine Barrens are famed for their unique plant communities; many acid bogs host both sundews and pitcher plants, as well as orchids and rare ferns. Long Island has its own pinelands areas; visit the Cranberry Bog County Nature Preserve in Suffolk County for pitcher plants, and Robert C. Murphy County Park for sundews.

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More Highlights Blue crabs: Blue crabs are a common marine species from New England to Florida that like brackish water best and are abundant in the Hudson River estuary. Fairly large crabs, measuring about five to eight inches across the shell, blue crabs are considered a "keystone predator" -- a pivotal player in the overall health of the Harbor Bight ecosystem.

Predators that eat small fish as well as other crabs, bivalves and dead organisms on the river bottom, blue crabs begin their lives as a planktonic form called "zoea" that float on the tides and wind. They molt multiple times until their larvae begin to assume the shape of a crab, at which time they move from the ocean shore back into the estuary, where they eventually mate in the brackish water.

Blue crabs support a major commercial fishery in the Harbor Bight and can be caught with lines from a bank or boat in the summer and early fall.

blue crab

Photos: Don Riepe/Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge

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