The Venus flytrap: Burned but not burnt

Story By Tia Nanjappan

WILMINGTON, North Carolina – Roger Shew, a geology and environmental science professor at UNC-Wilmington, kneels down in an overgrown and unkempt plant bed at the Bluethenthal Wildflower Preserve. Digging into the soil and getting his calloused hands dirty, Shew cleans out the bed and pushes Venus flytraps into the ground.

His floppy hat slipped down to hang around his neck as he bent over the plant bed, revealing wisps of hair. Despite his bad back, Shew insisted on helping his students plant.

In the past decade, the population of Venus flytraps has decreased rapidly

“The most important threat to Venus flytraps and biodiversity in general is loss of habitat,” Shew said.

Venus flytraps are carnivorous, insect-eating plants. They only naturally occur in Wilmington and within a 90-mile radius of the city. If they keep disappearing from the natural habitat, it’s a problem, Shew said.

“Flytraps used to be common in areas farther out like Fayetteville too, but they’ve slowly died out due to the same reasons they’re becoming rare here – urban development and a loss of quality in habitat,” Shew said.

Venus Flytraps depend on a lot of sunlight. If they can’t get enough sunlight, they die. There are two things putting their natural habitat in danger: urban development and excessive overgrowth, Shew said. If this keeps happening, Venus flytraps will only be found on land specifically engineered to maintain biodiversity.

Shew and his wife, Dale Shew, have worked at one place – The Nature Conservancy – for the last five years to research Venus flytraps.

In their research, they explore the effect of controlled burns on the health of Venus flytrap populations. Or in other words – they play with fire.

Forest fires have long since been considered a threat to humans, but to Venus flytraps, they mean survival.

Venus flytraps live low to the ground so it’s difficult for them to get light, Shew said. Longleaf pine savannas, the environment where Venus flytraps flourish, renew with fire.

“Longleaf pines and wiregrass communities are a fire-dependent ecosystem” Shew said. “Without fire, the shrubs and grasses may become too thick to support the herbaceous species and would also preclude regeneration of longleaf pine.”

Hervey McIver, protection specialist at the Nature Conservancy, has seen up close how fire can have a positive effect on Venus flytraps.

“Venus flytraps need fire on a very consistent basis, which there isn’t in places like residential areas for obvious reasons,” McIver said.

However, controlled burns may not suffice.

“We have to mimic conditions that flytraps had 500 years ago when burns would go on for miles and miles,” McIver said. “That’s hard to do.”

According to McIver, several parts have to come together in a controlled burn. The “Burn Boss” creates a prescribed burn plan by laying out a particular burn in a particular location and then looking at the weather. The wind has to be blowing in the right direction, and the humidity has to be just right. If they aren’t careful, the fire could jump over the land, and it would have to be put out.

Fire is complicated enough, but there is another problem that comes with the fire — smoke, McIver said.

“Not only do you have to own the fire, you also have to own the smoke,” McIver said. “If the fire gets out of control, smoke can penetrate residential areas, which can cause people to complain. You are liable for it all.”

Sometimes the smoke can hang in areas where some people are especially sensitive, like people with pulmonary lung issues, McIver said.

”The controlled burns aren’t ideal, but it’s the best we can do,” McIver said.

Angie Carl, the coastal fire and restoration manager at The Nature Conservancy, handles a lot of the actual burning.

“We’ve gotten complaints about smoke, but it isn’t as much anymore,” Carl said. “We try and do a lot of public outreach to combat that so people know why we are burning the forest and why it’s important to do so.”

One such method is the annual Fire in the Pines Festival, Carl said. In addition to educational booths to inform the public, there is a demonstration of a controlled fire to show people its benefits.

Poaching is another reason for this population decline, Shew said, but 2014 legislation changed poaching from a misdemeanor to a felony. The law is helping.

“There’s a black market for them,” Carl said. “We’re not sure why or what they’re doing with them, but there is a market.”

Audrey Sigmon, owner of Fly-Trap Farms, a greenhouse in Brunswick County, said it is illegal to collect flytraps from natural habitats. Now, they can only sell plants grown in labs in Florida that are shipped to them.

“The state of North Carolina also requires us to notice our [agriculture representative] to come out and document when we get plants in,” Sigmon said.

Jumping through hoops like this could encourage poaching, Carl said.

“But poaching is still not as big of an issue as a loss of habitat,” McIver said.

McIver said the development that has occurred in Wilmington and surrounding areas is another huge reason Venus flytraps are disappearing.

“If you have flytraps, and then bulldoze over it, I mean – it just ruins it,” McIver said.

Carl said the conversion of a Venus flytraps’ habitat to things like roads, agriculture, timber, plantations or houses is killing the species.

Habitat loss became worse after Interstate 40 was put into place and population boomed, Shew said.

“The thing is – flytraps are not an endangered species” he said. “Right now, it’s only being monitored, but there’s no immediate threat for extinction. Developers will move sites to protect habitats for endangered animals, but it’s a little more difficult convincing them to move for a plant that isn’t.”

In the Wilmington region, which includes New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties, population has grown 40 percent from 2000-2010, according to the United States Census Bureau, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to stop anytime soon. Demographers estimate the region will exceed 400,000 residents by 2020.

“The small populations of Venus flytraps on roads or sidewalks – those small portions were removed,” Shew said.

Now, Venus flytraps in private areas are almost completely gone, Shew said. It’s imperative that the larger preserves maintain them now.

Brushing dirt off his knees and standing up, Shew walked over to the Venus flytraps sitting untouched in the small box of dirt.

“They’re our official state carnivorous plant, you know?” Shew said. “It’s an iconic species. An indicator that something is valuable, that there’s a richness to the area.”

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