Save the Venus Flytrap (Dionaea muscipula)!
How to generate funds to conserve wild populations.
The Venus Flytrap is perhaps the world's most unique and well-known carnivorous plant (Fig. 1). Known only from a small area of coastal North and South Carolina (Boyer 1995), it has been sought after for decades, usually as wild collected plants and illegally (Gibson et al 1980). The species has been decimated by decades of massive field collecting, as well as lack of fire and drainage of its habitats. Nearly 70% of all populations monitored since 1982 have gone
extinct forever (data from Shew 2002 compared with Boyer 1995; actual calculation is 69.2%). In 2002, there were less than an estimated 35,800 individual plants left in nature, (compared to the probable 2-3 million now in cultivation). At that time only 12 populations remained with about 1000 individuals in each and only 4 populations with more than 2000 individuals (9 populations of this latter greatest size have gone extinct). Serious poaching still continues, even from special preserves for the Flytrap. The species, therefore, is now under consideration for listing as endangered (R. Evans, pers. com.). Currently, it is protected by state laws and listed on APPENDIX II of CITES, an international treaty to regulate the trade in endangered and threatened species of plants and animals.
The Venus Flytrap continues to grow rapidly in popularity among plant collectors with over 682,000 plants sold internationally in 1994 and an average of 272,000 plants per year being sold since (Fig. 2). If plants average $5-l0 each retail, the current total international market value of flytraps is over $2 million per year. These data do not include domestically propagated flytraps, which must increase total world sales to well over an estimated 5-6 million dollars per year. Fortunately, most of the public demand for Venus Flytrap plants today is met by cloning plants via tissue-culture and seed production. (All plants were field collected until 1992, when tissue culture commenced in the USA. Large scale production by seed started in Holland in 1997. According to Shew (2002; page 14), however, "much of the trade still comes from plants grown in the wild").
Here, I propose that we initiate a voluntary premium to be paid at the time each Venus Flytrap is sold in the developed world (i.e., in the USA, United Kingdom, Germany, Holland, France, Canada, Japan, Australia, Czech Republic, Italy, Israel, and other countries where collectors commonly import this plant). A nominal surcharge (say, 25 cents) would be collected by wholesale nurserymen from retailers at the time they distributed the plants. Retailers would then display and collect this fee (or slightly more to cover any additional costs) as part of their sales. The money generated from such premiums would go into a central fund overseen by a committee of respected plant conservationists. They would then distribute these funds in the manner they agreed would best conserve wild populations and associated habitats. In particular, the funds would support the buying of private lands with suitable flytrap habitat, conducting research to learn optimal management policies, restoring new populations in suitable habitat lacking the plant, and protecting populations from known human threats including illegal poaching. Existing institutions that could benefit from such support include the North Carolina Plant Conservation Program, The Nature Conservancy, and the Heritage Program in South Carolina.
How large would this fund grow to conserve wild populations be? Assuming a premium of 25 cents per plant, and participation by all domestic and international wholesale dealers, the program could generate over $250,000 dollars per year. This estimate is based on sales of 5-6 million flytraps worldwide and 1/5 of all sellers participating. The international trade alone could generate $68,000 per year (based on 272,000 plants traded yearly).
It now appears clear that if we don't devise a mechanism to protect remaining plants and habitats, the Venus flytrap could go extinct. Only a few large populations remain and smaller populations often go extinct due to stochastic processes (Fig. 3). Consequently, the species' range may be collapsing. Concerned collectors would appreciate the opportunity to help prevent this human-driven extinction by so simple an act as donating when they but plants. The funds generated by this surcharge could, over time, serve to protect and restore much of the species' original range, (see Roberts and Oostings, 1958, for discussion of flytrap ecology).
The success of this conservation scheme depends entirely on the concern and love of collectors who give their money voluntarily to conserve this endangered plant species. To quote Baba Dioum, " in the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, we will understand only what we are taught." Each plant sold could have a special tag on it, explaining the sad endangered fate of this remarkable carnivorous plant species, reasons for the need of a premium, and how to contribute further. Most plant collectors love their plants and would welcome the chance to be educated about why plants like the flytrap need to be preserved as wild populations in natural habitats. The scheme also relies on the co-operation of concerned flytrap wholesale and retail nurseries. Many in the trade are already conservation-minded. Selling plants with a tag could become prestigious for wholesale companies. A pilot project with commercial nurseries could also serve to determine the optimal size of the premium. I suggest between 25 and 50 cents per plant .
This scheme has great potential for educating the general public about why we need to conserve biodiversity. Among all plants, the Venus Flytrap is most unique and "wonderful" (Darwin's word). It is disappearing now. Collectors can be conservationists when they contribute premiums to save wild plants and their habitats. Thus, this effort could act as a test-case and flagship for establishing similar programs designed to protect other plants and habitats.
This scheme of requesting a voluntary premium is not unusual. Already Vulcan Palms (Brighamia insignis) are being mass produced via tissue culture in Holland and sold to the general public to help augment its critically endangered wild populations in Hawaii (Marinelli 2005). Similarly, the Australian Government is permitting the sale of propagated plants of Wollemia nobilis in order to protect this ancient conifer's single population and to fund other plant conservation projects. In general, a much more comprehensive and larger international fund could be set up, based on premiums, to protect all rare, threatened, and endangered plants of horticultural value (Gibson, in progress).
Readers, who would like to see Venus Flytraps in nature, are directed to the Green Swamp Preserve (15,907 acres), near Supply, North Carolina.
Readers who would like to contribute to this fund or buy a flytrap can easily find the conservation organizations listed above and sources of plants on the internet. Culture requirements of the Venus Flytrap are well known (see D'Amato 1998). This remarkable carnivorous plant canwith everyone's caring and a small donation per plant generate funds to protect its own vanishing populations in nature.
Figure 3. Distribution of wild population sizes in 1992 (data courtesy of Boyer 1995). Note only a few large populations existed then. Most of the smaller ones are expected to go extinct through stochastic processes. It is important to compare this distribution with that generated from Shew's (2002) more recent data to test this hypothesis of stochastic extinction. A threshold of 100-500 individuals is considered currently to be the general size for stochastic processes to be operating (D.M. Waller, personal communication).
Boyer, M. 1995. Inventory of Venus Flytrap in North Carolina. A report to the Plant Conservation Program, North Carolina Department of Environment, Health, and Nature Resources. 68 pages.
Byrd, D. and J. Black. 2001. Venus Flytraps. An interview with W. Owen and A. Weakley. Program #3,249 of the Earth & Sky Radio Series,
D'Amato, P. 1998. The Savage Garden. Berkeley, California, Ten Speed Press.
Gibson, T.C. 1990. Differential escape of insects from carnivorous plant traps. Am. Midl. Nat., 125, 55-62.
Gibson, T.C. 2006. Save the Venus Flytrap, a proposal to generate long-term funds for the conservation of its wild populations. 13 pages. Unpublished manuscripted at the University of Wisconsin, Department of Botany.
Gibson, T.C. F.T. Campbell, and N. McCarten. 1980. International trade of endangered plant species. Special report to TRAFFIC (North America). 128 pages.
Marinelli, J. 2005. Wollemi pine and 'Olulu palm two endangered plants that need your help. Plants & Gardens News, 20 (3), ?-?.
Roberts, P.R. and H.J. Oostings.1958. Responses of venus fly trap (Dionaea muscipula) to factors involved in its endemism. Ecological Monographs, 28, 193--218.
Shew, D. 2002. Venus flytrap inventory in North Carolina 2002. Report to the Plant Conservation Program, North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. 23 pages.
Acknowledgements: Dr. Robert Evans and M. Boyer contributed support, population size data, and criticisms of the concept presented here. Dr. Wendy Strahm helped by contributing the Marinelli paper. Dr. Donald M. Waller read the manuscript and improved it; the errors are mine. I dedicate this article to him in recognition of his quintessential kindness, generosity, and his delight in the synthesis of ecology and conservation biology.
Download a pdf copy of this proposal.
Dr. Thomas C. Gibson
Department of Botany
University of Wisconsin
Madison, Wisconsin 53706