Pitcher Plant Fluid Dynamics

Carnivorous pitcher plants owe much of their efficacy to the viscoelasticity of their digestive fluid. A viscoelastic fluid’s resistance to deformation has two components: the usual viscous component that resists shearing and an elastic component, often derived from the presence of polymers, that resists stretching – kind of like a liquid rubber band. It’s the latter effect that’s important when it comes to the pitcher plant trapping insects. When a fly or ant falls into the liquid within the plant, it will flail and try to swim, thereby straining the fluid. In part © of the image above, you can see how long fluid filaments stretch as the fly moves; this is because the digestive fluid’s extensional viscosity, the elastic component, is 10,000 times larger than its shear viscosity, the usual viscous component, for motions like the fly’s. This viscoelastic fluid is so effective at trapping insects that, as seen in part (b) above, it has to be diluted by more than 95% before insects can escape it! (Image credit: L. Gaume and Y. Forterre)

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