Venus Flytraps Can Count, as In, 1-2-3

CC BY 2.0. Derek Keats/flick

Yes, the meat-eating plant can register numbers ... oh dear.

I'm at once in love with and terrified by the idea that plants could be sentient beings. I pretty much consider trees as people and think they deserve their own rights ... but, yeah. I eat plants, and I would kind of like to think that they aren't aware of that.

So what are we supposed to make of a new study which finds that the Venus flytrap can count? I mean, in a wonderful twist of the plants-will-one-day-rule-the-world scenario, the clever things can already lure prey to their seductive maws and devour them. But now they can count to?

So here's what happens. The flytrap senses the landing of a delicious insect, drawn there by the plant's irresistible scent, and then wham, the plant's open mouth-leaves slams shut. Next, the plant begins to produce a gory acidic enzyme punch to turn the bug into plant food. And here's where it gets interesting, as researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Current Biology have discovered. How exactly does the plant know when to close and how does it decide to begin producing its prey-decomposing cocktail? How do they know the intruder wasn't a bit of twig or a water drop? They count.

"The carnivorous plant Dionaea muscipula, also known as Venus flytrap, can count how often it has been touched by an insect visiting its capture organ in order to trap and consume the animal prey," says Rainer Hedrich of Universität Würzburg in Germany. ("Capture organ," seriously, Venus flytraps have all the fun.)

In the new study Hedrich and his team found that a specific number of touches by the insect makes the plant close its trap; and then again, a certain number of movements inspire the plant to begin the next process. As The Atlantic explains it, "One touch does nothing. Two closes the trap. Three primes the trap for digestion. And five ... triggers the production of digestive enzymes – and more touches mean more enzymes. The plant apportions its digestive efforts according to the struggles of its prey."

You can see a nice demonstration of it here:

"The number of action potentials informs [the plant] about the size and nutrient content of the struggling prey," Hedrich said. "This allows the Venus flytrap to balance the cost and benefit of hunting."

Hedrich and his team are now sequencing the Venus flytrap genome, according to a statement for the study. In those sequences, they expect to find additional clues about the plants' sensory systems and chemistry needed to support a carnivorous lifestyle and how those traits have evolved over time. Just please discover that they also know their ABCs.