Pitcher Plants with a Taste for Salamanders?

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The thought of a carnivorous plant trapping and digesting a vertebrate may seem more like fiction than reality. Though rumors have circulated over the years that some pitcher plants have a taste for animals larger than an insect, this has been hard to prove as evidence has been notoriously lacking. That is not to say it does not happen from time to time. Small mammals have indeed been found in the pitchers of some of the larger tropical pitcher plants in the genus Nepenthes. Still, these seem more incidental than regular. However, recent observations from Canada suggest that vertebrates may actually make up a bigger part of the menu of some pitcher plants than we previously thought at least under certain circumstances.

The observations were made in Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario. The carnivore responsible is North America’s most abundant pitcher plant - the purple pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea). In late summer of 2017, researchers discovered that some pitchers contained recently metamorphosed salamanders. Some of the salamanders were alive but a few others were dead and undergoing digestion. This was very exciting because despite plenty of study, there has been almost no substantiated evidence of vertebrate prey capture in the purple pitcher plant.

Subsequent surveys were done to figure out if the purple pitcher plants were indeed capturing salamanders on a regular basis or if the salamanders were one-off events. It turns out that, at least for the pitcher plants growing in this bog, salamanders may make up a considerable proportion of their prey! Researchers found that recently metamorphosed spotted salamanders were present in nearly 20% of the pitcher plants they surveyed!

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Not all of the salamanders they found were dead. Some were found in a relatively lively state, retreating down into the bottom of the pitcher whenever they were disturbed. Some of the larger dead specimens showed signs of putrefaction, which is probably because they were simply too large to be properly digested. Still, many of the dead salamanders showed signs of digestion, which suggests that the plants are in fact benefiting from salamander capture. In fact, it has been estimated that a single salamander could contribute as much nitrogen to the pitcher plant as the entire contents of three pitchers combined.

Taken together, the team found enough evidence to suggest that salamanders not only make up a portion of the pitcher plants’ diet in this bog, but also that pitcher plants are a significant source of mortality for young salamanders in this system. How the salamanders are caught is up for some debate. It could be that the salamanders are looking for a safe, wet place to hide, however, the complexity of the bog habitat means that there is no shortage of safe places for a young salamander to hide that won’t end in death.

It could also be that salamanders are attracted to all of the invertebrates that these plants capture or that salamanders are accidental victims, having fallen into the trap randomly as they explore their habitat. However, some pitchers not only contained more than one salamander, the plants position and stature within the bog means that most salamanders would have had to actively climb up and into the pitcher in order to end up inside. It very well may not be random chance after all. Certainly this will require more tests to say for sure.

What we can say for now is that within the confines of this Algonquin bog, salamanders are being trapped and digested by the purple pitcher plant. How much of this is unique to the circumstances of this particular bog and how much of this is something going on in other areas within the range of the purple pitcher plant is a subject for future research. It is possible that vertebrate prey may be more common among carnivorous plants than we ever thought!

Photo Credits: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3]

Going Veg With Nepenthes ampullaria

Carnivory in the plant kingdom is an interesting evolutionary adaptation to living in nutrient poor environments. It has arisen in only a handful of different plant families and indeed, the genera that exhibit it are considered highly derived. There is something to be said about a sessile organism that can take down mobile prey at the rate that most carnivorous plants do.

Perhaps part of our fascination with these botanical wonders stems from their move towards dietary habits not unlike our own. The reason for their predatory behavior is to acquire nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. Without these essential nutrients, life as we know it would not exist. It is no wonder then that carnivorous plants have evolved some very interesting ways of getting them into their tissues and to me, there is nothing more peculiar than the way in which Nepenthes ampullaria gets its much needed nitrogen fix.

A rather widespread species, N. ampullaria is at home in the understory of the rain forests of the southeast Asian islands. It differs from its carnivorous cousins in a multitude of ways. For starters, the pitchers of N. ampullaria are oddly shaped. Resembling an urn, they sit in dense clusters all over the jungle floor, below the rest of the plant. Unlike other Nepenthes, the pitchers have only a small, vestigial lid with no nectar glands. Finally, the slippery, waxy surface that normally coats the inside of most Nepenthes pitchers is absent in the pitchers of N. ampullaria. All of these traits are clues to the unique way in which this species has evolved to acquire nitrogen.

N. ampullaria doesn't lure and digest insects. Instead, it relies on leaf litter from the forest canopy above for its nutritional needs. The urn-like shape, lack of a hood, and clustered growth enable the pitchers to accumulate considerable amounts of leaf litter in the pitchers. Because the pitchers are relatively long lived for a Nepenthes, lasting upwards of 6 months, they offer up a nice microhabitat for a multitude of insect and even frog larvae. The collective group of organisms living within the pitchers are referred to as an inquiline community.

Photo by: Benjamin Tapley http://www.inaturalist.org/photos/44997

Photo by: Benjamin Tapley http://www.inaturalist.org/photos/44997

Over time, an inquiline community develops in each of the pitchers. This is the key to the success of N. ampullaria. As the inquiline organisms breakdown the leaf litter, they release copious amounts of nitrogen-rich waste. The pitchers can then absorb this waste and begin to utilize it. At least one study found that an individual plant can obtain 35.7% of its foliar nitrogen in this manner. It has also been demonstrated that the pitchers actively manipulate the pumping of hydrogen ions into the fluid within to keep it less acidic than that of other Nepenthes.

I don't know if I would consider this a case of herbivory as the nitrogen is still coming from an animal source but it is nonetheless an interesting adaptation. Instead of using valuable resources on actively digesting its own prey, N. ampullaria is getting other organisms to do the work for it. Not too shabby.

Photo Credit: Jonathan A. Moran, Charles M. Clarke, and Barbara J. Hawkins

Further Reading:

http://bit.ly/1IRbYG9

http://jxb.oxfordjournals.org/content/61/5/1365

http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s004420050390

http://bit.ly/1S10oej