As It Happens

Pitcher plants discovered snacking on baby salamanders in Ontario park

University of Guelph biologist Alex Smith describes the 'WTF moment' of spotting a pitcher plant that had devoured a juvenile salamander.

Guelph researcher who spotted the unusual phenomenon calls it a 'WTF moment'

Researchers found that one in five of the pitcher plants in Algonquin Park contained juvenile amphibians that were trapped and dying. (Submitted by Patrick D. Moldowan)
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Transcript

Alex Smith may be bald, but he says his hair stands on end when he thinks about the moment he first spotted a pitcher plant that had devoured a juvenile salamander in an Ontario park.   

That's because it's believed to be the first documented case in North America of a vertebrate-eating pitcher plant.

Smith, a University of Guelph biologist, was in Algonquin Provincial Park last August doing field work with a group of undergraduate students when he made the discovery in a bog. 

"I peek over one of the little cups and I bend it towards the student and instead of seeing a collection of decaying spiders and insects and other deliciousness for that plant, I see a juvenile yellow spotted salamander," Smith told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"And I say, 'WTF.'"

A juvenile yellow spotted salamander trapped in a pitcher plant in Algonquin Provincial Park. (Submitted by Patrick D. Moldowan)

Smith took his findings to Patrick Moldowan at the University of Toronto, who is running a long-term research program on the salamanders in the park.

"We get each other very excited about this because he connects the fact that a student on the field course the year before had observed one instance of this," Smith said

Moldowan decided to take a closer look.

In August and September, when thousands of newly metamorphosed salamanders had come out of a nearby lake, Moldowan searched through hundreds of plants in the wetlands for the amphibians.  

What he found led Smith to yet another "WTF moment," he said.

One in five of the plants contained juvenile amphibians that were trapped and dying. The findings were published this week in the journal Ecology.

"It's potentially not trivial predation upon the salamander and potentially super important nutrients for the plant," Smith said. 

A slow death 

Pitcher plants catch their prey — usually insects — in special leaves known as pitfall traps, which contain a digestive enzyme. The leaves have a waxy edge, meaning it's nearly impossible to escape, and the prey is left to rot in rain water. 

The salamanders likely had a slow death — taking anywhere from three to 19 days to die.

Smith says there are many reasons why the salamanders may find themselves in the clutches of these carnivorous plants.

It could be that the young salamanders fall into the pitcher plants, or that they seek out the moist and dark space to hide from predators.

Or it's possible that the amphibians are lured to the plant on the promise of food.

Either way, the plants are a major predator for the salamanders, he said. 

The Wildlife Research Station in Algonquin Park is Ontario's oldest protected area and has hosted research teams for 70 years.

That makes it all the more surprising that this has never been documented before, Smith said.

"That's actually one of the other things that makes my hair stand up and excites me, because this paper is kind of an expression of the surprising events ... that the bog has taught us," he said.

"But then also an indication for us to go out and study these things more and to tell the rest of the story."

Written by Sarah Jackson. Produced by Chris Harbord. 

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