When you think about a carnivorous (meat-eating) plant, the first thing that probably comes to mind is the infamous Venus Flytrap; but aside from this well-known example, there are literally dozens upon dozens of carnivorous plants around the globe, with pitcher plants being one of them.
Image Credit: University of Guelph
Like most carnivorous plants, the bulk of pitcher plants devour bugs and insects because they’re small and easy to capture. With that in mind, researchers from the University of Guelph were particularly astonished to learn that a pitcher plant native to Ontario’s Algonquin Park wetlands consumes local juvenile salamanders too. Their findings are published in the journal Ecology.
It’s not unheard of for pitcher plants from elsewhere around the globe to deviate from their traditional diets since they’re opportunistic eaters, but as it would seem, this is the first report of a North American pitcher plant snacking on this particular species of salamander. It’s particularly fascinating that something like this has gone unnoticed for so long.
"Algonquin Park is so important to so many people in Canada. Yet within the Highway 60 corridor, we've just had a first," commented biologist Alex Smith, a co-author of the paper.
If finding the one salamander wasn’t interesting enough, the team purportedly found that one in five of the pitcher plants had contained at least one salamander. The numbers would indicate that this is more of a regular occurrence than initially thought and that the initial finding wasn’t just a fluke.
Pitcher plants eat their prey in ways comparable to other carnivorous plants – the prey gets trapped inside the plant, dies, and then gets digested very slowly by the plant’s enzymes. Pitcher plants are only slightly different in that they often contain water, hence the name ‘pitcher,’ and it tends to contain micro-organisms that facilitate the plant’s digestion process.
While monitoring the plants, the researchers also took careful note of how long the salamanders survived while being trapped inside the plants. Notably, some lived for just three days, while others lived well into 19 days after being caught. The significant variance in these figures would indicate that some salamanders die from circumstances unrelated to the pitcher plant itself.
Experts agree that most of the salamanders probably fell into the pitcher plants by accident while seeking out insect prey or while fleeing predators, but it remains to be seen why Ontario’s pitcher plants are eating salamanders in the first place. It’s entirely possible that they offer the plant a significant source of nitrogen.
It should be interesting to see if the pitcher plants are eating anything else besides the salamanders, and more importantly, if other species around the world follow similar diet patterns. Only time and research will tell…