This carnivorous plant invaded New York. That is perhaps the only hope.


The three men walked the green shoot back and forth over their kayaks. Occasionally one of them rocked it in the palm of his hand and brought a hand lens to it with the other, inspecting the carnivorous plant that was their premium.

Towards the end of the day, the group – Seth Cunningham and Michael Tessler, biologists at the American Museum of Natural History, and John Thompson, coordinator of the Catskill Regional Invasive Species Partnership – filled eight bottles with the plant, Aldrovanda vesiculosa, also known as the water wheel.

The plant does not belong in this small private pond in Orange County, N.Y. and has an ecological problem.

The waterwheel has become extinct all over the world. But from summer to late fall, the carnivorous, rootless, wetland-loving plant abounds in this swampy water near the Catskill Mountains.

"It's site zero for saving a species," Dr. said. Tessler, "or site zero for a very big problem."

See the water wheel as an underwater Venus fly trap. The swirling shoots are small, usually shorter than eight centimeters and less than one centimeter thick. But for a plant, the diet is impressive: seed shrimp, scaleless shellfish, insect larvae and sometimes even tadpoles and small fish.

When prey tickles one of the traps of the water wheel, it clicks in less than close 10 milliseconds, a tenth of the time it takes for your eyes to blink.

Until recently, the plant drifted over fens, ponds and reservoirs in Australia, Asia, Africa and Europe. But today man-made habitat destruction has pushed the water wheel into a free fall.

In the last 150 years, almost 90 percent of its habitat has disappeared worldwide, and the survival status of the water wheel has become extinct or uncontrolled in at least 32 of the 43 countries where it occurs naturally. In 2012, the International Union for Nature Conservation added Aldrovanda vesiculosa to its & # 39; red list & # 39; of globally endangered species.

But some botanists who do not want the carnivorous plant to disappear, see the water wheels of the northeast as a glimmer of hope for the worldwide survival of the species – or at least a buffer against its extinction.

Other experts are still struggling with the question of whether an endangered species can also be a threat. "How do you deal with its blur?" Said Dr. Tessler.

The water wheel is not only in its double life as both an ecological victim and an environmental damage. In Southeast Asia, the Burmese python is almost eradicated. But in Florida, where the pythons were originally imported as pets, officials struggled to keep 20-foot, 200-pound snakes decimating local animal populations.

In the Great Lakes, conservationists fight against invasive sea waters, overfished in their home region in southwestern Europe. A large garden bumblebee disappearing in Britain has begun to defeat indigenous pollinators in Argentina.

Is it possible to combine the double billing of a creature in both endangered species catalogs and invasive species indices?

"It's kind of the perfect paradox," Dr. said. Cross.

The waterwheel made its American debut in the mid-70s after transactions between Japanese and American carnivorous plant growers. When Virginia growers struggled to cultivate Japanese plants in plastic trays, they introduced them to shallow backyard ponds, according to a 2013 account published in the Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society.

By the end of the 1990s, water wheel transplants in five counties in Virginia had developed into established populations. Around that time, Richard Sivertsen, a well-known breeder of carnivorous plants, decided to bring it to New Jersey and New York.

In 1999, Mr. Sivertsen (who died in 2017) chose a dozen locations, such as abandoned sand and gravel pits, small ditches and artificial koi ponds, which he considered sufficiently isolated from pristine wetlands and larger bodies of water. After harvesting a few of the Virginia transplants, he drove around for two days and scattered Aldrovanda like a Tristate Johnny Appleseed.

Mr. Sivertsen found no trace of the plant when he returned to the places – except one. In 2002 he saw in a smelly drain behind a shopping center that was susceptible to green algal blooms and crawling with brown rats and tubifex worms, a well-known green shoot.

"A visit to the site a week later revealed that the shoots had made a huge leap forward," he wrote in his 2013 account. In the following decade, botanists documented similar eruptions in the northeast.

In October 2012, Chris Doyle, now biology director at Solitude Lake Management, found an aquatic consulting firm, and his colleagues & # 39; s thousands of water wheels in Bear Swamp, near Lake Owassa in New Jersey.

"We had no idea what it was," said Mr. Doyle.

By that year, water wheels had colonized the edges of the private pond in New York. Mr. Sivertsen's son, Kevin, who was a child at the time, recalled his father's surprise that a picky species vulnerable to slight changes in the environment had lain, let alone left.

"He was deeply concerned that the plant would die out and be wiped off the face of the earth," said Kevin Sivertsen. "That was a big part for him. He was happy to take the risk that it would invade a new ecosystem, instead of letting it die out. "

In a 2013 study to assess the potential invasiveness of the species, Dr. Cross and other researchers at nine locations at Fort A. P. Hill in Virginia. They discovered that water wheels could pack in the most abundant way 1260 strands in every square meter. But the team concluded in 2015 that it was did not compete with native aquatic plants.

Dr. Cross pointed out, however, that a robust waterwheel population of millions of strands, each strewn with dozens of hungry traps, could threaten local invertebrates and other fauna.

Another 2015 survey at the Virginia fort warned that the species had spread from one 27-acre site to 156 acres of wetlands in at least five ponds open to recreational boating and fishing in a single year – activities that could further spread the species .

Conservation officials are watching the plant to see if it spreads in New Jersey and Virginia, a task that was sometimes made difficult because they do not have access to waters on private land.

So far, New York's only documented site is the small amount of water in the state and DNA sequencing of the environment by Dr. Tessler has not turned up the plant's genetic fingerprint in other Catskills ponds.

Yet officials are concerned that it can spread to nearby waterways and surpass native carnivorous plant species, Mr. said. Young, such as bladder worms.

"It is something we really need to look at," said Mr. Thompson.

Carnivorous plants thrive in swamps and other marginal habitats with limited nutrients by surviving on the bodies of small animals. The water wheel has thus & # 39; n survived 50 million years.

But since people have decimated or demoted wetlands for development and agriculture, Aldrovanda has also suffered. Warming climates, increasing drought and eutrophication – too nutritious waters – have only aggravated adverse conditions.

"It's pretty clear why this species is extinct," Dr. said. Cross. "It has experienced an almost perfect storm of what people can do."

Now it is up to humans to decide what to do with the new, thriving population in the United States.

It is not the first time that a displaced water wheel has caused controversy. In 10 European countries, scientists have successfully re-introduced Aldrovanda to locations where the plant had disappeared, said LubomĂ­r Adamec, a plant ecologist at the Institute of Botany of the Czech Academy of Sciences.

Scientists have also transplanted waterwheel to four countries where it never occurred naturally: Switzerland, Germany, the Czech Republic and, around 2006, the Netherlands.

There are now tens of thousands of waterwheel strands in a nature reserve near Amsterdam. At first the Dutch authorities tried to exterminate the plants, but now they have decided to let it happen.

Dr. Adamec said he and other European researchers believe that saving endangered species will increasingly depend on such transplants, "so that the Aldrovanda case will not be exceptional, but normal and normal in the near future."

That can still be a gamble for nature workers in the Northeast, who already have scars from battles with other invasive aquatic species, such as Eurasian water milfoil and hydrilla, Doyle said. From their perspective, early prevention is cheaper than managing an explosion.

"Once it comes out of the shed, you might not be able to do much about it," he said.

Once the water wheel is anchored, the management options are limited. Although it can be collected by hand, only one or two individuals can sow an entire population. The alternative is a herbicide that kills every plant in the area.

With few practical options, Dr. Cross, Mr. Doyle and other experts suggested that the factory should remain monitored, but usually should remain alone.

What should no longer happen, according to Eric Lamont of the Long Island Botanical Society, are campaigns to introduce plants in environments where they did not evolve – no matter how well intended.

"You don't just want to introduce it to areas," he said. "This is not the way to try to save a species."


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