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The savage bug-eating plants of New Jersey

Carnivorous plants are thriving in the most unlikely place.

A carnivorous sundew plant in New Jersey’s pine barrens.
| Benji Jones/Vox
Benji Jones is a senior environmental reporter at Vox, covering biodiversity loss and climate change. Before joining Vox, he was a senior energy reporter at Insider. Benji previously worked as a wildlife researcher.

For small aquatic critters like mosquito larvae and water fleas, a plant called the bladderwort is a nightmare. Like the Venus flytrap, it’s carnivorous; it eats bugs.

On the water’s surface, bladderworts don’t look menacing. They have long and slender stems topped with small, colorful flowers. Yet underwater, they have a web of leaves covered in insect-ensnaring “bladders.” If a small invertebrate gets too close to those bladders (which look a bit like lentils), the structures will open, suck the animal inside, and then seal tightly. The plant then secretes digestive chemicals to consume its catch.

The whole entrapment process — shown in the GIF below — takes less than a millisecond, making bladderworts the fastest known carnivorous plant in the world.

I always imagined carnivorous plants like this lived far away in tropical jungles — the Amazon, the Congo Basin, and other famous forests that harbor enormous amounts of biodiversity and unique species.

Then I learned that carnivorous plants are abundant in, of all places, New Jersey. That’s right: urban, temperate New Jersey.

A bladderwort in the water. The things that look like watermelon seeds are the bladders.
Benji Jones/Vox

A vast ecosystem in New Jersey called the pine barrens has abundant populations of not only bladderworts but also pitcher plants and sundews, two other kinds of carnivorous plants with their own ingenious ways of trapping invertebrates. The barrens are also home to roughly 30 species of orchids and dozens of species of rare and threatened wildlife, including a particularly cute amphibian called the pine barrens tree frog.

Even more surprising is that the barrens are, as a whole, healthy and largely intact. The ecosystem is thriving as if it’s in some remote part of, I don’t know, Alaska, yet it’s in the most densely populated state in the country. How have the barrens — unlike so many other suburban ecosystems — survived? The answers, I learned, hold lessons for conserving the nation’s last remaining natural areas.

A carnivorous plant paradise

On a hot Friday morning in June, a couple of coworkers and I drove from Brooklyn to the barrens, where we met Jason Howell. Upbeat and tan, Howell is a public lands advocate with a local environmental group called the Pinelands Preservation Alliance.

Howell drove us along sandy roads in a large truck filled with kayaks and a canoe. Our path was flanked, as if in an elvish fairytale, by pink mountain laurel, wild blueberry bushes, and acres upon acres of fragrant pine trees.

A young opossum hangs from a pine tree in the pine barrens.
Getty Images/iStockPhoto

Encompassing more than a million acres of pine forest and wetland in southern New Jersey, the pine barrens comprise the largest stretch of natural area along the mid-Atlantic seaboard. Like a mini Amazon rainforest, the barrens are home to a truly remarkable diversity of life, including more than 1,000 species of plants.

Ironically, what makes this ecosystem so special is what it lacks: nutrients. The barrens are covered in a thick layer of sand — deposited during past glacial cycles when this region was underwater — and sand can’t hold on to nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous that plants need to grow. The soil and water are also highly acidic. Because the ground can’t support most crops, the pine forests here were dubbed the pine barrens.

But they’re not so much barren as they are filled with plants and animals uniquely adapted to life under harsh conditions. Carnivorous plants, for example, thrive in nutrient-poor soil. Their whole shtick is that they catch insects to supplement their diet of nutrients that their roots pull out of the soil. (Bladderworts don’t have roots at all.)

A group of pitcher plants.
Benji Jones/Vox

That afternoon, we visited a bog near a small town with Russell Juelg, a botanist and senior land steward at an environmental group called the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. The water was shallow and clear and dotted with cartoonish lily pads.

The carnivorous plants were impossible to miss. As we paddled through the water, we saw hundreds, maybe even thousands, of pitcher plants, blooming bladderworts, and shimmering sundews around the water’s edge. It was a place where bugs go to die.

Pitchers are lined with downward-facing hairs that prevent insects from escaping.
Benji Jones/Vox

Pitcher plants specialize in drowning insects. They grow leaves in the shape of a pitcher that collect rainwater. Those pitchers attract insects by producing nectar (and possibly smells), and when those critters approach the lid, they easily slip and fall into the water. Downward-facing hairs on the pitcher walls, and the walls’ slippery texture, prevent insects from escaping. So they perish. Digestive enzymes in the pitcher help the plant absorb nutrients from the insects’ bodies. Yum!

Sundews, meanwhile, are just living sticky traps. Their leaves are covered in hair-like stalks that are topped with beads of nectar. Those glistening beads lure in small invertebrates, which easily get stuck in the sticky liquid, like flies in honey. The stalks then begin to slowly close around the victim, which the plant digests.

A spatulate-leaf sundew.
Benji Jones/Vox
A close-up shot of a spatulate sundew.
Sundews are incredibly common in parts of the pine barrens.
Benji Jones/Vox

Throughout the day, we visited a handful of spots in the barrens including sand dunes in the middle of a forest and wildflower-filled meadows. Each was full of life (and surprisingly not that full of ticks).

Close to sunset, we stood by a narrow creek in a park called Franklin Parker Preserve listening to birds with Emile DeVito, a skilled birder who leads science and stewardship at New Jersey Conservation Foundation. As the birds sang, he called out their names one by one, in a charming Jersey accent. Blue-gray gnatcatcher. Common yellowthroat. Eastern kingbird. He clocked at least a dozen species.

Then DeVito imitated the call of a barred owl. “Hoo hoo hoo-hoooo.” At first, I thought it was a joke, but after about 15 minutes, a real barred owl started calling back. It was as if they were having an interspecies conversation. Eventually, we saw it — a mottled brown and white bird landed on a pine tree some 50 feet in front of us before flying away without a sound.

A barred owl in flight.
A barred owl in Baltimore.
Scott Suriano/Getty Images

Why the barrens haven’t been destroyed

New Jersey may be called the Garden State, but it’s known by many for its industrial cities, and it has more people per square mile than any other state in the country. Nonetheless, the pine barrens — which make up more than 20 percent of the state — have been relatively well conserved.

There are a few key reasons for that, Howell said, including the lack of nutrients. Sandy, nutrient-poor soils are not easy to farm, so when farmers were transforming natural vegetation along the Eastern Seaboard over the past few hundred years, they mostly left the pine barrens alone, he said.

Barren soil comes with another perk, Howell said: It makes the region largely inhospitable to invasive species and dangerous pathogens that decimate wildlife elsewhere, including the frog-killing Chytrid fungus.

A view of a wetland on a cloudy day in the pine barrens.
Summertime in the New Jersey pine barrens.
Sheldon Kralstein/Getty Images

Since the late ’70s, the pine barrens have also been conserved by a large reserve and formally governed by a state agency called the Pinelands Commission. These efforts only worked to safeguard the barrens, Howell said, because they had buy-in from private landowners, who own a lot of property within the reserve. (Landowners in certain regions designated for preservation are essentially compensated for conserving the natural habitat.)

“The reason that it succeeded is because it didn’t simply squash all the private interest,” Howell said of these efforts to protect the barrens. “There had to be a recognition and compensation for what otherwise would have been a taking of land for conservation.”

There’s a lesson here for protecting nature anywhere, Howell said: Without getting buy-in from the broader (human) community, environmental protections don’t work.

A simple way to keep threatened ecosystems protected

A collection of flowering pitcher plants in a bog in the pine barrens.
Benji Jones/Vox

Despite these protections, however, the barrens are under threat today, Howell said, largely from the expansion of human infrastructure, such as shops and office buildings, offroad vehicles, and poaching of rare plants and animals. In some cases, developers are leveling forests that fall outside of areas designated for preservation. Environmental advocates are also concerned that existing designations — which determine where certain environmental impacts are restricted — could soon change.

“There’s always a threat of losing what we have,” Howell said. “We’re witnessing the development of what is essentially a gigantic megacity that stretches from Boston well into Virginia,” he said, referring to how the footprints of major East Coast cities are starting to bleed into each other.

What’s especially concerning, Howell and DeVito said, is that interest in conserving ecosystems in rural areas is waning, in New Jersey and elsewhere, even as efforts to fight climate change have become more mainstream. Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, who is responsible for nominating some officials to the Pinelands Commission, supports the expansion of clean energy, but he doesn’t pay much attention to the barrens, DeVito said.

Bailey Lawrence, a spokesperson for the governor, said Murphy has been committed to supporting the preservation of New Jersey’s pinelands since he stepped into office in 2018. He supports the state’s plan to restore 10,000 acres of rare Atlantic white cedar forests in the pinelands, Lawrence said. He’s also appropriated millions in state funds for the Pinelands Commission. Susan Grogan, executive director of the commission, said Murphy has been “an invaluable part of our mission to preserve, protect, and enhance this special part of New Jersey.”

A bladderwort in bloom.
Benji Jones/Vox

Moving forward, Howell said, the only way to truly protect the barrens — and countless other natural areas — is to show people what’s here, what’s worth conserving. It’s not just the plants and animals but the clean water that ecosystems produce. It’s the carbon dioxide the pine trees absorb. It’s the experience of being here, of relaxing.

The state should make it easier to visit the barrens, Howell said, for instance by providing more public transportation to the region and offering free tours. “If people have no opportunities to go to nature or to understand and recognize the importance of having open space, then forget about it; the developers will win,” Howell said.

It’s a basic, yet important, point: To conserve an area, the public first needs to understand what value it provides. And there’s no better way to recognize an ecosystem’s value than to experience it oneself.

At nightfall in the barrens, the amphibian chorus begins. It’s comically loud. The toads sound like someone screaming; the carpenter frogs make generic construction noises; the pine barren tree frogs sound like a sped-up fire alarm (but slightly less grating).

As we walked on a trail through the forest, a small snake slithered by, seemingly fixated on catching its next meal. We dodged thick clouds of buzzing flies.

A pine barren tree frog.
Benji Jones/Vox

Here we were, just two hours from the largest US city, standing in the center of a fully functional ecosystem — the likes of which I often write about but rarely see. That, to me, is worth saving.

Byrd Pinkerton contributed reporting.

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