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- Darwiniana - 40/52 -

Why should these plants take to organic food more than others? If we cannot answer the question, we may make a probable step toward it. For plants that are not parasitic, these, especially the sundews, have much less than the ordinary amount of chlorophyll--that is, of the universal leaf-green upon which the formation of organic matter out of inorganic materials depends. These take it instead of making it, to a certain extent.

What is the bearing of these remarkable adaptations and operations upon doctrines of evolution? There seems here to be a field on which the specific creationist, the evolutionist with design, and the necessary evolutionist, may fight out an interesting, if not decisive, "triangular duel."




(The Nation, January 6 and 13, 1876)

"Minerals grow; vegetables grow and live; animals grow, live, and feel;" this is the well-worn, not to say out-worn, diagnosis of the three kingdoms by Linnaeus. It must be said of it that the agreement indicated in the first couplet is unreal, and that the distinction declared in the second is evanescent. Crystals do not grow at all in the sense that plants and animals grow. On the other hand, if a response to external impressions by special movements is evidence of feeling, vegetables share this endowment with animals; while, if conscious feeling is meant, this can be affirmed only of the higher animals. What appears to remain true is, that the difference is one of successive addition. That the increment in the organic world is of many steps; that in the long series no absolute lines separate, or have always separated, organisms which barely respond to impressions from those which more actively and variously respond, and even from those that consciously so respond--this, as we all know, is what the author of the works before us has undertaken to demonstrate. Without reference here either to that part of the series with which man is connected, and in some sense or other forms a part of, or to that lower limbo where the two organic kingdoms apparently merge--or whence, in evolutionary phrase, they have emerged--Mr. Darwin, in the present volumes, directs our attention to the behavior of the highest plants alone. He shows that some (and he might add that all) of them execute movements for their own advantage, and that some capture and digest living prey. When plants are seen to move and to devour, what faculties are left that are distinctively animal?

As to insectivorous or otherwise carnivorous plants, we have so recently here discussed this subject--before it attained to all this new popularity--that a brief account of Mr. Darwin's investigation may suffice.[XI-2] It is full of interest as a physiological research, and is a model of its kind, as well for the simplicity and directness of the means employed as for the clearness with which the results are brought out--results which any one may verify now that the way to them is pointed out, and which, surprising as they are, lose half their wonder in the ease and sureness with which they seem to have been reached.

Rather more than half the volume is devoted to one subject, the round-leaved sundew (Drosera rotundifolia), a rather common plant in the northern temperate zone. That flies stick fast to its leaves, being limed by the tenacious seeming dew-drops which stud its upper face and margins, had long been noticed in Europe and in this country. We have heard hunters and explorers in our Northern woods refer with satisfaction to the fate which in this way often befalls one of their plagues, the black fly of early summer. And it was known to some observant botanists in the last century, although forgotten or discredited in this, that an insect caught on the viscid glands it has happened to alight upon is soon fixed by many more--not merely in consequence of its struggles, but by the spontaneous incurvation of the stalks of surrounding and untouched glands; and even the body of the leaf had been observed to incurve or become cup-shaped so as partly to involve the captive insect.

Mr. Darwin's peculiar investigations not only confirm all this, but add greater wonders. They relate to the sensitiveness of these tentacles, as he prefers to call them, and the mode in which it is manifested; their power of absorption; their astonishing discernment of the presence of animal or other soluble azotized matter, even in quantities so minute as to rival the spectroscope--that most exquisite instrument of modern research--in delicacy; and, finally, they establish the fact of a true digestion, in all essential respects similar to that of the stomach of animals.

First as to sensitiveness and movement. Sensitiveness is manifested by movement or change of form in response to an external impression. The sensitiveness in the sundew is all in the gland which surmounts the tentacle. To incite movement or other action, it is necessary that the gland itself should be reached. Anything laid on the surface of the viscid drop, the spherule of clear, glairy liquid which it secretes, produces no effect unless it sinks through to the gland; or unless the substance is soluble and reaches it in solution, which, in the case of certain substances, has the same effect. But the glands themselves do not move, nor does any neighboring portion of the tentacle. The outer and longer tentacles bend inward (toward the centre of the leaf) promptly, when the gland is irritated or stimulated, sweeping through an arc of 1800 or less, or more--the quickness and the extent of the inflection depending, in equally vigorous leaves, upon the amount of irritation or stimulation, and also upon its kind. A tentacle with a particle of raw meat on its gland sometimes visibly begins to bend in ten seconds, becomes strongly incurved in five minutes, and its tip reaches the centre of the leaf in half an hour; but this is a case of extreme rapidity. A particle of cinder, chalk, or sand, will also incite the bending, if actually brought in contact with the gland, not merely resting on the drop; but the inflection is then much less pronounced and more transient. Even a bit of thin human hair, only 1/8000 of an inch in length, weighing only the 1/78740 of a grain, and largely supported by the viscid secretion, suffices to induce movement; but, on the other hand, one or two momentary, although rude, touches with a hard object produce no effect, although a repeated touch or the slightest pressure, such as that of a gnat's foot, prolonged for a short time, causes bending. The seat of the movement is wholly or nearly confined to a portion of the lower part of the tentacle, above the base, where local irritation produces not the slightest effect. The movement takes place only in response to some impression made upon its own gland at the distant extremity, or upon other glands far more remote. For if one of these members suffers irritation the others sympathize with it. Very noteworthy is the correlation between the central tentacles, upon which an insect is most likely to alight, and these external and larger ones, which, in proportion to their distance from the centre, take the larger share in the movement. The shorter central ones do not move at all when a bit of meat, or a crushed fly, or a particle of a salt of ammonia, or the like, is placed upon them; but they transmit their excitation across the leaf to the surrounding tentacles on all sides; and they, although absolutely untouched, as they successively receive the mysterious impulse, bend strongly inward, just as they do when their own glands are excited. Whenever a tentacle bends in obedience to an impulse from its own gland, the movement is always toward the centre of the leaf; and this also takes place, as we have seen, when an exciting object is lodged at the centre. But when the object is placed upon either half of the leaf, the impulse radiating thence causes all the surrounding untouched tentacles to bend with precision toward the point of excitement, even the central tentacles, which are motionless when themselves charged, now responding to the call. The inflection which follows mechanical irritation or the presence of any inorganic or insoluble body is transient; that which follows the application of organic matter lasts longer, more or less, according to its nature and the amount; but sooner or later the tentacles resume their former position, their glands glisten anew with fresh secretion, and they are ready to act again.

As to how the impulse is originated and propagated, and how the movements are made, comparatively simple as the structure is, we know as little as we do of the nature of nervous impulse and muscular motion. But two things Mr. Darwin has wellnigh made out, both of them by means and observations so simple and direct as to command our confidence, although they are contrary to the prevalent teaching. First, the transmission is through the ordinary cellular tissue, and not through what are called the fibrous or vascular bundles. Second, the movement is a vital one, and is effected by contraction on the side toward which the bending takes place, rather than by turgescent tension of the opposite side. The tentacle is pulled over rather than pushed over. So far all accords with muscular action.

The operation of this fly-catching apparatus, in any case, is plain. If the insect alights upon the disk of the leaf, the viscid secretion holds it fast--at least, an ordinary fly is unable to escape--its struggles only increase the number of glands involved and the amount of excitement; this is telegraphed to the surrounding and successively longer tentacles, which bent over in succession, so that within ten to thirty hours, if the leaf is active and the fly large enough, every one of the glands (on the average, nearly two hundred in number) will be found applied to the body of the insect. If the insect is small, and the lodgment toward one side, only the neighboring tentacles may take part in the capture. If two or three of the strong marginal tentacles are first encountered, their prompt inflection carries the intruder to the centre, and presses it down upon the glands which thickly pave the floor; these notify all the surrounding tentacles of the capture, that they may share the spoil, and the fate of that victim is even as of the first. A bit of meat or a crushed insect is treated in the same way.

This language implies that the animal matter is in some way or other discerned by the tentacles, and is appropriated. Formerly there was only a presumption of this, on the general ground that such an organization could hardly be purposeless. Yet, while such expressions were natural, if not unavoidable, they generally were used by those familiar with the facts in a half-serious, half-metaphorical sense. Thanks to Mr. Darwin's investigations, they may now be used in simplicity and seriousness.

That the glands secrete the glairy liquid of the drop is evident, not only from its nature, but from its persistence through a whole day's exposure to a summer sun, as also from its renewal after it has been removed, dried up, or absorbed. That they absorb as well as secrete, and that the whole tentacle may be profoundly affected thereby, are proved by the different effects, in kind and degree, which follow the application of different substances. Drops of rain-water, like single momentary touches of a solid body, produce no effect, as indeed they could be of no advantage; but a little carbonate of ammonia in the water, or an infusion of meat, not only causes inflection, but promptly manifests its action upon the contents of the cells of which the tentacle is constructed. These cells are sufficiently transparent to be viewed under the microscope without dissection or other interference; and the change which takes place in the fluid contents of these cells, when the gland above has been acted upon, is often visible through a weak lens, or sometimes even by the naked eye, although higher powers are required to discern what actually takes place. This change, which Mr. Darwin discovered, and turns to much account in his researches, he terms "aggregation of the protoplasm." When untouched and quiescent, the contents appear as an homogeneous purple fluid. When the gland is acted upon, minute purple particles appear, suspended in the now colorless or almost colorless fluid; and this change appears first in the cells next the gland, and then in those next beneath, traveling down the whole length of the tentacle. When the action is slight, this appearance does not last long; the particles of "aggregated protoplasm redissolved, the process of redissolution traveling upward from the base of the tentacle to the gland in a reverse direction to that of the aggregation. Whenever the action is more prolonged or intense, as when a bit of meat or crushed fly,

Darwiniana - 40/52

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