Biologists at the University of Guelph have recently discovered a meat-eating pitcher plant in the Ontario’s Algonquin Park. A typical pitcher plant feeds only on bugs and flies however this pitcher plant feeds even on salamanders.
According to a study published in the journal Ecology, the researcher calls this an unexpected and fascinating case of plants eating vertebrates in our backyard. Pitcher plants across Canada have been known to eat only the insects and spiders that fall into their bell-shaped structure but there were no reports about salamander being caught in a pitcher plant even from the oldest parks in Canada.
In summer 2017, an undergraduate student named Teskey Baldwin found a salamander trapped inside a pitcher plant during a U of G field of an ecology course. He has been monitoring pitcher plants around a single pond in the park in fall 2018. The team found that one in five pitcher plants contained juvenile amphibians which were small like a human finger. Some plants had more than one salamander captured in them. These observations were coincident with the pulses of young salamanders that crawl into the land from their larval state.
A researcher named Alex Smith has said that bog ponds usually lack fish and is the reason why salamanders are a key predator and prey species in food webs. He believes that the animals may have fallen into the plant to escape predators or maybe attracted by the insects in the pitcher plant or may have fallen directly.
Salamanders once trapped can survive for 3 days or up to 19 days. The digestive enzymes of the plants and specialized leaves break down the animal captured. Heat, starvation and infection by pathogens inside the pitcher plant may be another reason as to why they die inside the pitcher plant. The plant also gains precious nitrogen and nutrients if they turn to carnivores.
Some types of plants called Venus Fly Trap and Seymour plant in the musical Little Shop of Horrors are similar to the pitcher plant and use sticky leaves to catch insects. Pitcher plants have been known to us since the 18th century. A species found a decade ago in Asia is known to consume even small birds and mice along with insects. However, this discovery has raised a lot of questions like the importance of salamander as a prey and that the salamanders have to compete with plants for insects prey and may even choke the plant. The park officials are taking prompt actions and writing interpretive material for further study.