New Carnivorous Plant Species Found on Facebook

Drosera magnifica is a previously unknown carnivorous sundew discovered via Facebook. (Photo: Paulo Gonella [CC by 3.0]/Wikimedia Commons)

The meat-eating plant pictured above can grow 5 feet tall and catch insects as big as dragonflies. The species could be older than humanity, but as with many things, nobody knew it existed until someone posted it on Facebook.

A photo of the obscure sundew was first uploaded to the social network in 2013 by Reginaldo Vasconcelos, an amateur botanist who spotted it while hiking on a mountain in southeastern Brazil. The photo was then noticed a year later by Paulo Gonella, a plant researcher at the University of São Paulo's Institute of Biosciences who realized it looked distinct from any species he'd ever seen.

Gonella and Vasconcelos eventually met up and returned to the mountain, where they tracked down the mysterious plant. Along with researchers from the Botanical State Collection in Munich, Germany, they were able to confirm the species was previously unknown to science. They published their discovery — named Drosera magnifica, or "magnificent sundew" — this month in the journal Phytotaxa.

Sundews represent one of the largest groups of carnivorous plants on Earth, with around 200 species discovered so far. They attract and trap insects using sticky, hair-like glands spread across the surface of their leaves, then slowly roll up their leaf edges and produce digestive enzymes to consume their prey.

Drosera magnifica is reportedly the largest sundew and second-largest carnivorous plant native to the Americas. It's capable of growing up to 5 feet in height with leaves more than 9 inches long, helping it capture virtually any size of insect. Gonella was surprised when he first saw it, he tells IFLScience, "not only because it seemed to be a completely new species, but it was a gigantic plant."

Internet photos have become a useful tool for spreading knowledge among professional botanists and amateur plant enthusiasts, the Telegraph points out, although not usually to this degree. While photos taken by non-experts often provide information like location data that can inform future fieldwork by scientists, Gonella and his colleagues say this sundew is "the first plant species to be recorded as being discovered through photographs on a social network."

The plant has so far only been found on the one mountaintop in eastern Minas Gerais, and the researchers say it meets the criteria to be listed as "critically endangered" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

In addition to the limited size of its habitat, the mountain is surrounded by cattle ranches as well as coffee and eucalyptus plantations, according to the Telegraph, and most nearby forest cover has already been cleared. "The conservation of this region is crucial, as it hosts unique and still poorly known flora and fauna that are severely threatened by human interference and invasive plant species," Gonella says. "We are aware of a movement of local citizens that are fighting to turn this region into a state park and we are actively helping them to make this come true."