In the bogs of Ontario, Canada, certain plants have developed a taste for amphibians.
The northern pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea) is a type of carnivorous flora well-known for chowing down on hundreds of different species of insects. Now, according to a study published June 5 in the journal Ecology, scientists have found that about 1 in 5 pitcher plants in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park have also made a habit of capturing, killing and digesting juvenile salamanders, too.
According to the study authors, this is the first research showing that carnivorous pitcher plants, also known as turtle socks, make vertebrates a regular part of their diets.
“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,” study co-author Alex Smith, an associate biology professor at Ontario’s University of Guelph, told Live Science in an email. “I hope and imagine that one day the general public’s interpretive pamphlet for the bog will say, ‘Stay on the boardwalk and watch your children — here be plants that eat vertebrates!”
With goblet-shaped leaves, pitcher plants collect rainwater to attract and trap various insects and invertebrates. Once caught in the pitcher, hapless bugs are slowly dissolved by a mixture of microorganisms in the water and digestive enzymes produced by the plant. The bug dies, and their carnivorous captor gets a free nutritional supplement.
Smith and his colleagues at the Universities of Guelph and Toronto first discovered salamanders — both living and dead — floating inside these pitchers during several sessions of field work at Algonquin Provincial Park in 2017 and 2018.