Biologists from the University of Guelph have discovered a meat-eating plant in Ontario’s Algonquin Park wetlands. Instead of eating bugs, this plant feasts on young salamanders. While pitcher plants are commonly found in the Canadian wetlands, they feed mostly on spiders and insects that fall into the bell-shaped leaves and end up decomposing in the rainwater.
In a paper published in the journal Ecology, integrative biologist Alex Smith described the finding as an “unexpected and fascinating case of plants eating vertebrates in our backyard, in Algonquin Park.”
Even though the plants at the provincial park have been observed for hundreds of years, nobody – until fairly recently – has reported seeing a salamander species being trapped by a pitcher plant anywhere in North America. In fact, it was in the summer of 2017 when Teskey Baldwin, who was an undergraduate student at that time and on a University of Guelph field ecology course, discovered a salamander trapped inside of a pitcher plant.
In the fall of 2018, a team of researchers studied pitcher plants that were located around a single pond and they noticed that approximately one in five of them contained tiny salamanders that were around the same size as a human finger. Even more surprising is that numerous plants held more than one salamander.
Since there are a limited number of fish in the bog ponds, it is believed that the young salamanders could have fallen into the plants because they were looking for insects. Another possibility is that they crawled into the plants in order to escape from predators. While some of the salamanders that were trapped inside of the plants died within just three days, others lived up to 19 days.
Smith stated that the pitcher plants could have turned carnivorous in order to get nutrients, such as nitrogen which is lacking in the soil of the bogs. In other parts of the world, flesh-eating plants – such as the sundews and the Venus flytrap – have also been found in environments that lack important nutrients.
Other meat-eating pitcher plants have been discovered in other parts of the world since the eighteenth century, but it is believed that this is the first time such a plant has been found in North America. One example was a pitcher plant that was found in Asia a decade ago and it ate spiders and insects, but also mice and small birds.
Let’s hope that the pitcher plants stick with small vertebrates, as it would be quite concerning to see a large sign near the bog that reads, “Stay on the boardwalk and watch your children. Here be plants that eat vertebrates,” as Smith said.
A picture of a salamander caught inside of a pitcher plant, as well as a photo of the bog where the plants were found can be seen here.