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Ecophysiological traits of terrestrial and aquatic carnivorous plants: are the costs and benefits the same?


A. M. Ellison, Harvard Forest, Harvard Univ., 324 North Main Street, Petersham, MA 01366, USA. E-mail:


Identification of tradeoffs among physiological and morphological traits and their use in cost–benefit models and ecological or evolutionary optimization arguments have been hallmarks of ecological analysis for at least 50 years. Carnivorous plants are model systems for studying a wide range of ecophysiological and ecological processes and the application of a cost–benefit model for the evolution of carnivory by plants has provided many novel insights into trait-based cost–benefit models. Central to the cost–benefit model for the evolution of botanical carnivory is the relationship between nutrients and photosynthesis; of primary interest is how carnivorous plants efficiently obtain scarce nutrients that are supplied primarily in organic form as prey, digest and mineralize them so that they can be readily used, and allocate them to immediate versus future needs. Most carnivorous plants are terrestrial – they are rooted in sandy or peaty wetland soils – and most studies of cost–benefit tradeoffs in carnivorous plants are based on terrestrial carnivorous plants. However approximately 10% of carnivorous plants are unrooted aquatic plants. Here we ask whether the cost–benefit model applies equally well to aquatic carnivorous plants and what general insights into tradeoff models are gained by this comparison. Nutrient limitation is more pronounced in terrestrial carnivorous plants, which also have much lower growth rates and much higher ratios of dark respiration to photosynthetic rates than aquatic carnivorous plants. Phylogenetic constraints on ecophysiological tradeoffs among carnivorous plants remain unexplored. Despite differences in detail, the general cost–benefit framework continues to be of great utility in understanding the evolutionary ecology of carnivorous plants. We provide a research agenda that if implemented would further our understanding of ecophysiological tradeoffs in carnivorous plants and also would provide broader insights into similarities and differences between aquatic and terrestrial plants of all types.

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