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N.C.'s insect-gobbling Venus flytrap is at the brink of extinction. Help might be on the way.

The remaining number of insect-eating Venus flytraps is less than 5 percent of its natural abundance, but it could win the protection of federal law. The plant grows wild only in the Carolinas.
The remaining number of insect-eating Venus flytraps is less than 5 percent of its natural abundance, but it could win the protection of federal law. The plant grows wild only in the Carolinas. File photo

The insect-gobbling Venus flytrap, which is under assault by development and poachers on the Carolinas coastal plain, could soon win the protection of federal endangered-species law.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took a first step last December, when it found that a petition to protect the iconic plant presented "substantial" evidence in its favor. Further review is underway.

The petition came from 26 biologists, botanists and plant conservationists. Nine of those experts are from North Carolina, but joining them were plant defenders from as far away as California and the Royal Botanical Gardens in London. Charles Darwin himself pronounced the plant "one of the most wonderful in the world."

The flytrap has been reduced to less than 5 percent of its natural abundance because of its rarity, the scientists say — its carnivorous appetite and because it's found only in small parts of the Carolinas coast and sandhills.

Its native soils are so poor that the plant needs the added nutrition from insects to survive. Its unique ability to lure ants and spiders into an aerial snap trap — jaws that snap shut in the blink of an eye — makes it "the most widely recognized carnivorous plant in the world," the petition says.

Researchers at N.C. State University learned that the plant doesn't eat insects that pollinate it.

But illegal poaching and loss of habitat to development, including the snuffing out of wildfires that help fertilize the plant and keep grasses from shading it out, has left the flytrap at the brink of extinction. Only 42 groups of 500 or more plants exist, and only nine groups have long-term protection.

Poachers have been voracious, routinely digging up 1,000 plants at a time. In 2014, North Carolina legislators made it a felony to steal the plants from four counties.

Poached plants sell for only about 25 cents at local stores and flea markets, Angie Carl of the North Carolina Nature Conservancy told Coastal Review Online. Carl says buyers should instead turn to chain stores, which don't sell plants taken from the wild.

"The place to buy is Walmart or the big-box stores," she said. "They’re actually getting them (legally) from tissue culture."

The petition before the Fish and Wildlife Service asks the agency to protect the flytrap on an emergency basis while deciding whether to list it as endangered. If the flytrap is added to the list, the Endangered Species Act would protect habitat that is crucial to its survival, make it illegal to collect the plant and impose fines of up to $50,000 for violations.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051; @bhender
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