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Horned bladderwort (Utricularia cornuta) in the wild, Québec
Photo: peupleloup

Bladderworts are likely to disappoint amateur botanists on nature excursions eager to see a carnivorous plant in action, “devouring” its victim. The trap in question, the bladder, is rarely larger than 3 mm in diameter, and often captures only microscopic prey. Moreover it acts underwater and, lastly, the whole process happens very quickly, in about 1/460 of a second. Without very special techniques, it is absolutely impossible to see the plant in action. What makes it so interesting, though, is to understand how its very refined trap mechanism works.

Slack (1979) estimates that there are about 250 species in this genus. Although most of them are aquatic, many are terrestrial. They grow in very wet soil, for they need water for the bladder to function. In tropical rainforests, some of them are epiphytic. Bladderworts have no roots. Where they are anchored to the substrate, it is often by rhizoids. The main stem bears fine, frequently divided stolons. Leaves, when they are present, are generally very narrow and difficult to distinguish from the stems.

Within the genus, the leaves present many modifications, depending on the species (Lloyd 1942). Their bladders appear to have originated with a modified leaf segment. Their inflorescence is also quite variable. The flowers, single or in clusters, are two-lipped. In Quebec there are eight bladderwort species, seven of which are strictly aquatic, while Utricularia cornuta is found in marshy habitats.

The trap

The bladder resembles a bean flattened on the sides, attached to the plant by a small stalk connected to its underside. On the narrower part of the bladder is an opening closed by a roughly circular, flexible structure, of which the upper half circle forms the hinge. On the sides of the opening are often two ramified antennae forming a sort of tunnel, which guides the prey toward the opening. A few long hairs, or bristles, attached to the bottom of the door serve as triggers. In a resting state, the bladder has a globular shape with two convex sides. The door is held firmly closed and sealed by mucilage and an external membrane, the velum, pressed against the threshold. 

The trap is set by glands that expel much of the water, deforming the bladder and drawing its side walls inward. The suction keeps the door in a precarious balance that is broken by the slightest contact with the trigger hairs. Peduncular glands on the door secrete sweet mucilage that appears to attract aquatic organisms ranging in size from microscopic protozoa to mosquito larvae. As soon as they brush against the trigger hairs, the door is immediately sucked inward.

Since Lloyd (1942), it has been generally recognized that the triggering of the door by the hairs is only a physical phenomenon. Nonetheless, some researchers believe that there is also some kind of electrical stimulus, like the one that triggers the two “jaws” of a Venus flytrap (Sydenam, 1973). Once the door opens, the animal is sucked into the bladder along with the water. And when the suction ceases, the bladder resumes its globular form and the door closes again. To reset the trap, the water inside is once again expelled by a system of glands, while other, enzyme-secreting, glands absorb the nutrients from the digested prey.

Bladderwort species

Purple-flowered species

Utricularia resupinata Greene

Common name
Inverted bladderwort

French name
Utriculaire résupinée

Description
Delicate horizontal stem bearing linear leaves up to 3 cm long. It is distinguished from other bladderworts by a tube-shaped bract surrounding the flower stalk and by its odd-looking flowers, which are tipped backward and facing upward (resupinate).

Habitat
Shallow water and along shorelines

Distribution in Quebec
Outaouais, Laurentians, Eastern Townships. Included on the list of rare plants in Quebec (Bouchard et al., 1981 and 1983).

Global distribution
Eastern North America, from Quebec to Florida

Utricularia purpurea Walter

Common name
Eastern purple bladderwort

French name
Utriculaire pourpre

Description
Submerged plant, often occurring in masses, with a long, leafless, brownish stem with whorled stolons. The flower stalk is held 7 to 10 cm above the water, bearing a reddish-purple flower with yellow markings at the base.

Habitat
Stagnant water, boggy lakes

Distribution in Quebec
Laurentians only. Included on the list of rare plants in Quebec (Bouchard et al. 1983).

Yellow-flowered species

Terrestrial plants

Utricularia cornuta Michaux

Common name
Horned bladderwort

French name
Utriculaire cornue

Description
The 3 to 30-cm flower stalk bears a cluster of 1 to 5 flowers with spurs, forming the main structural element of the plant. There are only a few bladders, borne on a very small underground horizontal stem.

Habitat
Wet peat bogs, sandy sites or wet muddy shorelines

Distribution in Quebec
Widespread

Global distribution
North America

Aquatic plants

Utricularia geminiscapa Benjamin

Common name
Hidden-fruit bladderwort

French name
Utriculaire à scapes géminés

Description
The 15 to 25-cm stem bears not only coloured flowers on its stalks but also another type of flowers that do not open (cleistoglamous), located mainly at the base of the stalk. The leaves, up to 2 cm long, are entire.

Habitat
Ponds and slow-moving streams

Distribution in Quebec
Outaouais, Abitibi, Laurentians, Eastern Townships, Lower St. Lawrence and North Shore, but very sporadic (Haber, 1979). Included on the list of rare plants in Quebec (Bouchard et al., 1981 and 1983).

Global distribution
North America

Utricularia vulgaris Linnaeus

Common name
Greater bladderwort

French name
Utriculaire vulgaire

Description
Horizontal stem 30 to 100 cm long, floating just beneath the surface, sometimes ramified. Highly divided leaves with toothed capillary segments. The stalk is inserted at the apex of the stolons, and bears 3 to 8 flowers.

Habitat
Stagnant water, muddy streams, marshes, boggy lakes

Distribution in Quebec
Widespread

Global distribution
North America, Europe, North Africa, Asia, Siberia

Aquatic plants with stems spreading on muck

Utricularia gibba Linnaeus

Common name
Humped bladderwort

French name
Utriculaire à bosse

Description
Small plant with leaves with capillary, entire segments. 3 to 10-cm stalk bearing flowers with two almost equal lips.

Habitat
Shallow and often boggy lakes

Distribution in Quebec
Outaouais, Mauricie, Laurentians, Eastern Townships, North Shore. Included on the list of rare plants in Quebec (Bouchard et al., 1981 and 1983).

Global distribution
North and Central America, Caribbean

Utricularia minor Linnaeus

Common name
Lesser bladderwort

French name
Utriculaire mineure

Description
Small plant closely resembling U. gibba, distinguished mainly by its flowers, on which the lower lip is much longer than the upper one. Each leaf bears a bladder. The 1 to 11 cm stalk bears 2 to 7 flowers (generally 6).

Habitat
Shorelines, shallow stagnant water

Distribution in Quebec
Widespread

Global distribution
North America, Europe, Asia

Utricularia intermedia Hayne

Common name
Flat-leaved bladderwort

French name
Utriculaire intermédiaire

Description
Stem with two types of stolons, one bearing bladders and the other with palmately divided, toothed leaves. The 10 to 20-cm stalk bears up to 6 flowers.

Habitat
Shallow stagnant water

Distribution in Quebec
Widespread

Global distribution
North America, Europe, Asia

References:

  • Bouchard, A., D. Barabé, M. Dumais and S. Hay. "Liste préliminaire des plantes vasculaires rares du Québec", Bulletin de la SAJIB, vol. 6, no. 2, 1981, p. 44-48.
  • Bouchard, A., D. Barabé, M. Dumais and S. Hay. Les plantes vasculaires rares du Québec, Syllogeus, no 48, 1983, 79 p.
  • Haber, E. "Utricularia geminiscapa at Mer Bleue and Range Extensions in Eastern Canada", Can. Field Nat, vol. 93, 1979, p. 391-398.
  • Lloyd, F.E. The Carnivorous Plants, Mass., Chronica Botanica Company, 1942, 352 p.
  • Slack, A. Carnivorous Plants, Mass., MIT Press, 1979, 240 p.
  • Sydenam, P.H. et G.P. Findlay. "The Rapid Movement of the Bladder of Utricularia sp.", Aust. J. Biol. Sci., vol. 26, 1973, p. 1115-1126.

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