‘Crazy discovery:’ Salamander-eating pitcher plants found in Ontario: study

Salamanders are spotted in a pitcher plant. Patrick D. Moldowan

In what is believed to be a first in North America, researchers in Canada have found a carnivorous plant consuming salamanders in Ontario’s Algonquin Park wetlands.

According to a University of Guelph paper published on June 5 in the journal Ecology, researchers found pitcher plants — known to grow in wetlands across the country and eat creatures, mostly insects and spiders — had consumed not just bugs, but also young salamanders.

A ‘WTF’ moment

University of Guelph associate professor and integrative biologist, Alex Smith, called the finding “crazy” and a “surprise.”

The discovery was made during an undergraduate field course at the Wildlife Research Station (WRS) in Algonquin Provincial Park, Smith wrote in an email to Global News.

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“In preparing these third and fourth year undergraduate students to discover the wonderful world of bogs, I’m going to tell them about carnivorous plants — a common bog adaptation,” he wrote.

“I turned up several pitcher plants (Sarracenia purpurea) to show the students — and in one plant found a young juvenile salamander.”

Smith called it a “WTF moment.”

During the course, Smith said, Patrick Moldowan, a PhD student at the University of Toronto, arrived at the WRS and made the connection that in a previous year’s field course, another student had found a salamander in a pitcher plant.

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“We decided more work needed to be done,” Smith said.

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According to Smith, Moldowan returned to the Wildlife Research Station in late August and early September of 2018 and found that 20 per cent of the pitcher plants he surveyed contained at least one young salamander.

On multiple occasions, more than one salamander was observed in a single plant.

Each captured salamander was about as long as a human finger, according to the paper.

“This crazy discovery of previously unknown carnivory of a plant upon a vertebrate happened in a relatively well-studied area on relatively well-studied plants and animals,” Smith wrote.

Pitcher plants are known to grow in wetlands across the country (Patrick D. Moldowan). Patrick D. Moldowan

How salamanders end up in pitcher plants

According to the paper, there are a few ways researchers believe the salamanders end up in the pitcher plants.

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One theory, the paper suggests, is that salamanders seek refuge from predators in the plants.

Another possibility, researchers say, is that the salamanders are attracted to the small insect prey in the plants.

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Alternately, the paper suggests salamanders may randomly fall into the pitcher plants, becoming trapped.

However, researchers say that the fact that multiple salamanders were found in a single plant on more than one occasion in a “relatively open habitat” suggests that it may be non-random.

Regardless of how the salamanders end up in the plants, the paper suggests the salamanders may be an important seasonal prey source for pitcher plants.

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A slow death

Researchers found it took between three and 19 days for the salamanders to die after becoming trapped by the plants.

According to the paper, the specialized bell-shaped leaves of the pitcher plants collect rainwater in which prey dies, then decomposes.

Micro-organisms living within the pitcher and digestive enzymes produced by the plant help to decompose the prey, the paper says.

The University of Guelph paper also suggests the temperatures inside the plant’s fluid also exceeded tolerable levels, contributing to the salamanders’ deaths.

Just the beginning

Smith says the study and survey is “only the beginning,” and has unearthed a number of questions

“Now that we know what to look for, there are some important questions that we can ask: Are plants a significant form of mortality for the salamanders? Are the salamanders a significant form of nutrition for the plants? Are the salamanders, in fact, not a good thing for the plants?”

According to Smith, Moldowan will spearhead research to answer these questions this season and in the years to come.

Algonquin Park is the oldest protected space in Ontario. This summer marks the 70th anniversary of the Algonquin Park WRS.


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