Encounters With a Rare White-Topped Carnivore

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I am not a list maker. Never have been and never will be. That being said, there are always going to be certain plants that I feel I need to see in the wild before I die. The white-topped pitcher plant (Sarracenia leucophylla) was one such plant.

I will never forget the first time I laid eyes on one of these plants. It was at a carnivorous plant club meeting in which the theme had been “show and tell.” Local growers were proudly showcasing select plants from their collections and it was a great introduction to many groups which, at the time, I was unfamiliar with. Such was the case for the taller pitcher plants in the genus Sarracenia. Up until that point, I had only ever encountered the squat purple pitcher plant (S. purpurea).

I rounded the corner to a row of display tables and was greeted with a line of stunning botanical pitfall traps. Nestled in among the greens, reds, and yellows was a single pot full of tremendously white, green, and red pitcher plants. I picked my jaw up off the floor and inquired. This was the first time I had seen Sarracenia leucophylla. At that point I knew I had to see such a beauty in the wild.

More like white and red top…

More like white and red top…

It would be nearly a decade before that dream came true. On my recent trip to the Florida panhandle, I learned that there may be a chance to see this species in situ. Needless to say, this plant nerd was feeling pretty ecstatic. Between survey sites, we pulled down a long road and parked our vehicle. I could tell that there was a large clearing just beyond the ditch, on the other side of the trees.

The clearing turned out to be an old logging site. Apparently the site was not damaged too severely during the process as the plant diversity was pretty impressive. We put on our boots and slogged our way down an old two track nearly knee deep in dark, tanic water. All around us we could see amazing species of Sabatia, Lycopodiella, Drosera, and so much more. We didn’t walk far before something white caught my eye.

There to the left of me was a small patch of S. leucophylla. I had a hard time keeping it together. I wanted to jump up and down, run around, and let off all of the excited energy that had built up that morning. I decided to reign it in, however, as I had to be extra careful not to trample any of the other incredible plants growing near by. It is always sad to see the complete disregard even seasoned botanists have for plants that are unlucky enough to be growing next door to a species deemed “more exciting,” but I digress.

Sarracenia leucophylla  flower  [SOURCE]

Sarracenia leucophylla flower [SOURCE]

This was truly a moment I needed to savor. I took a few pictures and then put my camera away to simply enjoyed being in the presence of such an evolutionary marvel. If you know how pitcher plants work then you will be familiar with S. leucophylla. Its brightly colored pitchers are pitfall traps. Insects lured in by the bright colors, sweet smell, and tasty extrafloral nectar eventually lose their footing and fall down into the mouth of the pitcher. Once they have passed the rim, escape is unlikely. Downward pointing hairs and slippery walls ensure that few, if any, insects can crawl back out.

What makes this species so precious (other than its amazing appearance) is just how rare it has become. Sarracenia leucophylla is a poster child for the impact humans are having on this entire ecosystem. It can only be found in a few scattered locations along the Gulf Coast of North America. The main threat to this species is, of course, loss of habitat.

A large conservation population growing  ex situ  at the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

A large conservation population growing ex situ at the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

Southeastern North America has seen an explosion in its human population over the last few decades and that has come at great cost to wild spaces. Destruction from human development, agriculture, and timber production have seen much of its wetland habitats disappear. What is left has been severely degraded by a loss of fire. Fires act as a sort of reset button on the vegetation dynamics of fire-prone habitats by clearing the area of vegetation. Without fires, species like S. leucophylla are quickly out-competed by more aggressive plants, especially woody shrubs like titi (Cyrilla racemiflora).

Another major threat to this species is poaching, though the main reasons may surprise you. Though S. leucophylla is a highly sought-after species by carnivorous plant growers, its ease of propagation means seed grown plants are usually readily available. That is not to say poaching for the plant trade doesn’t happen. It does and the locations of wild populations are best kept secret.

Sarracenia leucophylla  habitat  [SOURCE]

Sarracenia leucophylla habitat [SOURCE]

The main issue with poaching involves the cut flower trade. Florists looking to add something exotic to their floral displays have taken to using the brightly colored pitchers of various Sarracenia species. One or two pitchers from a population probably doesn’t hurt the plants very much but reports of entire populations having their pitchers removed are not uncommon to hear about. It is important to realize that not only do the pitchers provide these plants with much-needed nutrients, they are also the main photosynthetic organs. Without them, plants will starve and die.

I think at this point my reasons for excitement are pretty obvious. Wandering around we found a handful more plants and a few even had ripening seed pods. By far the coolest part of the encounter came when I noticed a couple damaged pitchers. I bent down and noticed that they had holes chewed out of the pitcher walls and all were positioned about half way up the pitcher.

I peered down into one of these damaged pitchers and was greeted by two tiny moths. Each moth was yellow with a black head and thick black bands on each wing. A quick internet search revealed that these were very special moths indeed. What we had found was a species of moth called the pitcher plant mining moth (Exyra semicrocea).

An adult pitcher plant mining moth ( Exyra semicrocea ) sitting within a pitcher!

An adult pitcher plant mining moth (Exyra semicrocea) sitting within a pitcher!

Amazingly, the lives of these moths are completely tied to the lives of the pitcher plants. Their larvae feed on nothing else. As if seeing this rare plant wasn’t incredible enough, I was witnessing such a wonderfully specific symbiotic relationship right before my very eyes.

Fortunately, the plight of S. leucophylla has not gone unnoticed by conservationists. Lots of attention is being paid to protecting remaining populations, collecting seeds, and reintroducing plants to part of their former range. For instance, it has been estimated that efforts to protect this species by the Atlanta Botanical Garden have safeguarded most of the genetic diversity that remains for S. leucophylla. Outside of direct conservation efforts, many agencies both public and private are bringing fire back into the ecology of these systems. Fires benefit so much more than S. leucophylla. They are restoring the integrity and resiliency of these biodiverse wetland habitats.

LEARN MORE ABOUT WHAT PLACES LIKE THE ATLANTA BOTANICAL GARDEN ARE DOING TO PROTECT IMPORTANT PLANT HABITATS THROUGHOUT THE SOUTHEAST AND MORE.

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

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]

The Parrot Pitcher Plant

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Southeastern North America is the true home of the carnivorous plants belonging to the genus Sarracenia. Seven of the approximately eight species in this genus reside in North America's coastal plain forests and nowhere else. These evolutionary marvels are famous the world over for their carnivorous pitfall traps but not all members conform to this style of prey capture. The most aberrant of these carnivores is the so-called parrot pitcher plant (Sarracenia psittacina).

The parrot pitcher plant would be easy to pick out of a lineup, even with an untrained eye. Instead of tall, lanky, upright pitchers, it produces a rosette of smaller, entirely prostrate pitchers. Additionally, the leaf-like hood that covers the pitchers of its relatives appears to have grown into a dome-like structure speckled with translucent patches. Finally, the belly of each pitcher sports a leafy fin called an "ala" that runs the whole length of the tube. Indeed, with the exception of perhaps the purple pitcher plant (S. purpurea), the parrot is truly an oddball.

Its unique appearance is likely an adaptation to seasonal flooding and has changed the way in which this particular species captures prey. The pitchers of the parrot pitcher plant do not function as pitfall traps like those of its relatives. Instead, this species utilizes the "lobster trap" method of prey capture. Lured to its pitchers by their bright colors, insects gradually explore the traps. The fin-like ala directs these unsuspecting victims to the mouth of the pitcher. The translucent patches on the domed hood lure the insect into a false sense of security.

Once inside, the insects become disoriented and cannot easily find the proper escape rout. As they crawl farther into the pitcher, backward pointing hairs ensure that escape is impossible. Death is followed by digestion as the pitcher obtains yet another nutrient-rich meal. However, insects aren't the only game in town for the parrot pitcher plant.

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Because of its prostrate habit, the parrot pitcher plant regularly finds itself underwater whenever its already wet habitat floods. This would be bad news for most other pitchers as their upright position would allow whatever was inside to float out and away. Such is not the case for the parrot pitcher. Underwater, the pitchers become even more like a lobster trap. Everything from aquatic insects to tadpoles and fish can and do fall victim to this plant. As such, not even seasonal flooding can put a damper on this unique pitcher plants meal ticket. It is a wonderful example species adaptation.

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Like all members of the southeastern coastal plain community, the parrot pitcher plant is losing its habitat at an alarming rate. Habitat loss is an ever present threat, both in the form of outright destruction from logging and development as well as from sequestration of fire. Coastal plain communities are fire-adapted ecosystems and without it, the myriad species that call this region home are overgrown and choked out. Research has shown that the parrot pitcher plant, as well as other pitcher plants, greatly benefit from regular fires. Fire clears away competing vegetation and the plants respond with vigor.

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Luckily, parrot pitcher plant numbers are stable at this point in time. Its low growth habit saves it from threats like mowing, which means that it can do well in places like roadside ditches that are less favorable for its taller relatives. I have said it before and I will say it again, if you value species like the parrot pitcher plant, please do everything you can to support land conservation efforts. Please check out what organizations such as The Longleaf Alliance, Partnership For Southern Forestland Conservation, The Nature Conservancy, and The National Wildlife Federation are doing to protect this amazing region. Simply click the name of the organization to find out more.

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

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

 

Bacteria Help the Cobra Lily Subdue Prey

The cobra lily (Darlingtonia californica) is one of North America's most stunning pitcher plants. Native to a small region between northern California and southwestern Oregon, this bizarrely beautiful carnivore lives out its life in nutrient poor, cold water bogs and seeps. Although it resides in the same family as our other North American pitcher plants, Sarraceniaceae, the cobra lily has a unique taxonomic position as the only member of its genus.

It doesn't take much familiarity with this plant to guess that it is carnivorous. Its highly modified leaves function has superb insect traps. Lured in by the brightly colored, tongue-like protrusions near the front tip of the hood, insects find a sweet surprise. These tongue-like structures secrete nectar. As insects gradually make their way up the tongue, they inevitably find themselves within the downward pointing mouth of the pitcher. This is where those translucent spots on the top of the hood come in.

These translucent spots trick the insects into flying upwards into the light. Instead of a clean getaway, insects crash into the inside of the hood and fall down within the trap. The slippery walls of the pitchers interior make escape nearly impossible but that isn't the only thing keeping insects inside. Research has shown that the cobra lily gets a helping hand from bacteria living within the pitcher fluid.

Unlike other pitcher plants, the cobra lily does not fill its traps with rain water. The downward pointing mouth prevents that from happening. Instead, the pitchers secrete their own fluid by pumping water up from the roots. Although there is evidence that the cobra lily does produce at least some of its own digestive enzymes, it is largely believed that this species relies heavily on a robust microbial community living within its pitchers to do most of the digesting for it. This mutualistic community of microbes save the plant a lot of energy while also providing it with essential nutrients like nitrogen in return for a safe place to live.

That isn't all the bacteria are doing for this pitcher plant either. As it turns out, the pitchers' microbial community may also be helping the plant capture and subdue its prey. A recent study based out of UC Berkeley demonstrated that the presence of these microbes helps lower the surface tension of the water, effectively drowning any insect almost immediately.

The microbes release certain compounds called biosurfactants. Through an interesting chemical/physical process that I won't go into here, this keeps insects from using the surface tension of the water's surface to keep them afloat, not unlike a water strider on a pond. Instead, as soon as insects hit the bacteria infested waters, they break the surface tension and sink down to the bottom of the pitcher where they quickly drown. There is little chance of escape for a hapless insect unlucky enough to fall into a cobra lily trap.

Although plant-microbe interactions are nothing new to science, this example is the first of its kind. Although this prey capture role is very likely a secondary benefit of the microbial community within the pitchers, it very likely makes a big difference for these carnivores living in such nutrient poor conditions.

Photo Credit: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1]

The Mountain Sweet Pitcher Plant

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I am fascinated by pitcher plants. The myriad shapes, sizes, and colors make them quite a spectacle. Add to that their carnivorous habit and what is not to love? I am used to having to visit bogs or coastlines to see them in person so you can imagine my surprise to learn that a small handful of pitcher plants haunt the mountains of Southern Appalachia.

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Sarracenia jonesii is a recent acquaintance of mine. I never knew this species existed until 2016. It is a slender pitcher plant whose traps grow taller and narrower than the purple pitcher plant (S. purpurea) but not nearly as tall and robust as species like S. leucophylla. Regardless of its size, this one interesting carnivore. One unique aspect of its ecology is the habitats in which it grows. What could be more strange than a pitcher plant clinging to sloping granite slabs?

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Most mountainous areas don't hold water for very long. Aside from bowls and the occasional lake, gravity makes short work of standing water. In southern Appalachia, this often results in impressive cascades where sheets of water flow over granite outcrops and balds. Where water moves slow enough to not wash soil and moss away, cataract bogs can form. Soils are so thin in these areas that trees and shrubs can't take root, thus keeping competition to a minimum. Because granite is rather inert, nutrients are scarce. All of these factors combine to make prime carnivorous plant habitat.

A cataract bog clinging to the side of a waterfall.

A cataract bog clinging to the side of a waterfall.

Along the edges of these cataract bogs, anywhere sphagnum and other mosses grow is where S. jonesii finds a home. One would think that growing in such hard-to-reach places would protect this interesting and unique carnivore. Sadly, that is not the case. To start with, S. jonesii was never common to begin with. Native to a small region of North and South Carolina, it is now only found in about 10 locations. 

Habitat destruction both direct and indirect (alterations in hydrology) has taken its toll on its numbers in the wild. To add insult to injury, poaching has become a serious issue. In fact, an all green population of this species was completely wiped out by greedy collectors looking to add something rare to their collection. The good news is that there are dedicated folks working on conserving and reintroducing this plant into the wild. In 2007, conservationists at Meadowview Biological Research Station, with help from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Grant, successfully reintroduced a population of S. jonesii to its former range.

Although the future remains uncertain for this species, it nonetheless has captured hearts and minds alike. Hopefully the charismatic nature of this species is enough to save it from extinction. I only wish such dedicated conservation efforts were directed at more imperiled plant species, both charismatic and not. 

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

The Fanged Pitcher Plant of Borneo

As mammals, and even more so as apes, we tend to associate fangs with threats. The image of two dagger-like teeth can send chills up ones spine. Perhaps it is fitting then that a carnivorous plant from a southeast Asian island would sport a pair of ominous fangs. Friends, I present to you the bizarre fanged pitcher plant (Nepenthes bicalcarata).

This ominous-looking species is endemic to Borneo and gets its common name from the pair of "fangs" that grow from the lid, just above the mouth of the pitcher. Looks aren't the only unique feature of this species though. Indeed, the entire ecology of the fanged pitcher plant is fascinatingly complex.

Lets tackle the obvious question first. What is up with those fangs? There has been a lot of debate among botanists as to what function they might serve. Some have posited the idea that they may deter mammals from feeding on pitcher contents. Others see them as mere artifacts of development and attribute no function to them whatsoever.

In reality they are involved in capturing insects. The fangs bear disproportionately large nectaries that lure prey into a precarious position just above the mouth of the pitcher. Strangely enough, this may have evolved to compensate for the fact that the inside of the pitchers are not very slippery. Whereas other pitcher plant species rely on waxy walls to make sure prey can't escape, the fanged pitcher plant has relatively little waxy surface area within its pitchers. What's more, the pitchers are not very effective at capturing prey unless they have been wetted by rain. The fluid within the pitchers also differs from other Nepenthes in that it is not very acidic, contains few digestive enzymes, and isn't very viscous. Why?

Worker ants cleaning the pitcher (left) and an ant brood chamber inside of the pitcher tendril (right).

Worker ants cleaning the pitcher (left) and an ant brood chamber inside of the pitcher tendril (right).

The answer lies with a specific species of ant. The fanged pitcher plant is the sole host of a carpenter ant known scientifically as Camponotus schmitzi. The tendrils that hold the pitchers themselves are hollow and serve as nest sites for these ants. Ant colonies take up residence in the tendrils and will hunt along the insides of the pitchers. In fact, they literally go swimming in the pitcher fluid to find their meals!

This is why the pitcher fluid differs so drastically from other Nepenthes. The fanged pitcher plant actually does very little of its own digestion. Instead, it relies on the resident ant colony to subdue and breakdown large prey. As a payment for offering the ants room and board, the ants help the plant feed via the breakdown of captured insects (which are often disposed of in the pitchers) and the deposition of nitrogen-rich feces. Indeed, plants without a resident ant colony are found to be significantly smaller and produce fewer pitchers than those with ants. The ants also protect and clean the plant, removing fungi and hungry insect pests.

Sadly, like many other species of Nepenthes, over-harvesting for the horticultural trade as well as habitat destruction have caused a decline in numbers in the wild. With species like this it is so important to make sure you are buying nursery grown specimens. Never buy a wild collected plant! Also, if you are lucky enough to grow these plants, propagate them! Only by reducing the demand for wild specimens can we hope of curbing at least some of the poaching threats. Also, what better way to get your friends into gardening than by sharing with them amazing carnivores like the fanged pitcher plant.

Female flowers

Female flowers

Photo Credit: [1]
Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

An Introduction to Cephalotus follicularis - A Strange Carnivore From Australia

In a small corner of western Australia grows one of the most unique carnivorous plants in the world. Commonly referred to as the Albany pitcher plant, Cephalotus follicularis is, evolutionarily speaking, distinct among the pitcher plants. It is entirely unrelated to both the Sarraceniaceae and the Nepenthaceae.

This stunning case of convergent evolution stems from similar ecological limitations. Cephalotus grows in nutrient poor areas and thus must supplement itself with insect prey. It does so by growing modified leaves that are shaped into pitchers. The lid of each pitcher serves two purposes. It keeps rain from diluting the digestive enzymes within and it also confuses insects.

A close inspection of the lid will reveal that it is full of clear spots. These spots function as windows, allowing light to penetrate and confuse insects that have landed on the trap. As they fly upwards into the light, they crash into the lid and, with a little help from physics, fall down into the trap.

The relationship of Cephalotus to other plants has been the object of much scrutiny. Though it is unique enough to warrant its own family (Cephalotaceae), its position in the greater scheme of plant taxonomy originally had it placed in Saxifragales. Genetic analysis has since moved it out of there and now places it within the order Oxalidales. What is most intriguing to me is that the closest sister lineage to this peculiar little pitcher plant are a group of trees in the family Brunelliaceae. Evolution can be funny like that.

Regardless of its relationship to other plants, Cephalotus follicularis has gained quite a bit of attention over the last few years. Its strange appearance and carnivorous habit have earned it a bit of stardom in the horticultural trade. A single specimen can fetch a hefty price tag. As a result, collecting from wild populations has caused a decline in numbers that are already hurting due to habitat destruction. Luckily they are easy to culture in captivity, which will hopefully take pressure off of them in the wild.

What's more, the loss of Cephalotus from the wild is hurting more than just the plant. A species of flightless, ant-mimicking fly requires Cephalotus pitchers to rear its young. They don't seem to mind growing up in the digestive enzymes of the pitchers and to this date, their larvae have been found living nowhere else. If you are lucky enough to grow one of these plants, share the wealth. Captive reared specimens not only take pressure off wild populations, they are also much hardier. Lets keep wild Cephalotus in the wild!