Carnivorous Pitcher Plants Can Dissolve Anything From Bugs To Salamanders

Slipping inside pitcher plants is a risky business. Images courtesty of Amanda Semenuk

A report of an Australian tree that packs a spider-like venom last year stood as a stark reminder that you’re not always safe among plants. From Venus flytraps to the malodorous corpse flower, the world of botany is full of morbid but fascinating characters. Unfortunately, around a quarter of carnivorous are thought to be at risk of extinction owing to their highly-specific niches.

Perhaps among the most impressive of these voracious plants is the pitcher plants, Nepenthes and Sarracenia whose slippery rims make it easy for curious animals to fall inside their jug-shaped bells. Inside, they’re submerged in a pool of liquid which might look benign, but you don't want to spend too long here. Fallen victims who are unable to get out are treatfed to a tissue-dissolving, enzyme-rich bath, breaking them down into an easily digestible pulp for the plant to feed on.

Like many carnivorous plants, pitchers evolved to consume such a wide variety of prey in response to the nutrient-poor environments they inhabit. Other plants have nourishment aplenty in their surrounding soils, but those in more arid and unforgiving turf need to get inventive. Fortunately, lacking essential elements can be effectively foraged by liquifying passersby, vertebrate or invertebrate. With their alluring nectar and slippery trap, the prey is just one false move away from a one-way train to smoothie town.

The diverse menu of pitcher plants caught the eye of wildlife photographer and Science Exposed Photo Contest winner Amanda Semenuk from the University of Guelph, Canada, whose Twitter bio describes her as, "Curious about what #carnivorousplants have been eating lately." We caught up with her to find out more about these wacky plants.

carnivorous pitcher plants
After discovering that pitcher plants ate salamanders, Semenuk and colleagues soon learned the phenomenon was quite common. Images courtesy of Amanda Semenuk

What first drew you to photographing pitcher plants?

I made my first trip to the Algonquin Wildlife Research Station in 2018 for a field ecology course and was immediately drawn to the local ecology – many of the plants and animals in the parks can’t be found back home in Guelph. Led by Dr. Alex Smith, now one of my advisors for my MSc, he shared his enthusiasm for Algonquin’s carnivorous plants, mainly sundews and, of course, northern pitcher plants. We sampled from these plants as a class to see which types of insects each plant was capturing most. I was fascinated by their extensive adaptations for prey capture as well as their ability to live in a soggy, nutrient-poor area. Every summer since then, my camera roll has been filled by these brilliant carnivorous plants. 

What have been the strangest things you’ve seen pitchers feeding on?

Looking into pitcher plants is kind of like opening a goody bag, you never know what you are going to find inside. Of course, the most interesting animal we’ve found so far are juvenile spotted salamanders which we now know are captured by the dozens each summer. Besides them, I’ve seen dragon flies, bees, and lots of moths and ants who fell victim to the plants.

carnivorous pitcher plants
A pitcher plant's pool is bad news even for aquatic species. Images courtesy of Amanda Semenuk

What does the inside of a pitcher plant look like?

It’s easy to see the prey that are floating at the top of the pitcher fluid, but when you take a look deeper into the pitcher plant, it is surprising the types and amounts of decomposing prey you can find. Pitcher plants are rather unique in that they actually rely on microorganisms within the pitcher fluid to break down and help the plants ‘digest’ their food. Using a turkey baster, I’ve now investigated the contents of hundreds of leaves. I mostly find small wings and parts of insects’ exoskeletons, both of which are harder for the plant to digest. Late decomposition salamanders smell awful and decompose between a few days and a few weeks.

You've got to admit, "Life is like looking into pitcher plants, you never know what you're gonna' find next," would've added a certain je ne sais quoi to that Forest Gump scene.

 

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