Plants are meat-eaters, too
If you don’t think plants are scary, you should think again. Researchers have discovered that pitcher plants in Canadian bogs are not only getting their fill of insects, they are also eating full-blown vertebrate animals. You don’t need to throw out your houseplants just yet, but the details about this particular meat-eating leafy green might have you looking at your ferns and orchids in a whole new way.
How do researchers know that plants are eating animals?
Scientists have known for years that the pitcher plant, which can be found in boggy areas around the world, likes to eat meat. The most famous carnivorous pitcher plant, the Venus flytrap, has been a classroom favorite for years due to its slow and steady entrapment of insects. However, in 2018, a researcher from the University of Guelph found a salamander stuck inside the pitcher of a purple pitcher plant in Ontario. This unusual discovery prompted a careful study: in August and September (the breeding time for salamanders), a group of researchers wandered around the bog checking pitcher plants for trapped salamanders. What they found was astounding. Nearly one-fifth of the plants they checked contained at least one salamander.
While scientists need to do more research to determine the cause and effect of these lizard-eating plants, they claim that it is entirely possible that this behavior has been happening for a long time without anyone noticing it. What they are also unsure of is how exactly the plant kills and consumes the comparatively large animals. Experts say that it would take at least three days for the lizards to die inside the pitcher and that it might take as long as 19 days for them to succumb.
Since there were so many lizards found inside the plants, it is likely that the vertebrates make up a large portion of the plant’s needed nutrients, but scientists plan on doing further research to determine the process and benefits of such an addition to the plants’ diets. Scientists have previously found other vertebrates, such as tree shrews, in the pitchers of these plants, but unlike the salamanders, those findings were rare and are assumed to be the result of the animals falling from the tree into the unsuspecting plant.
How do the pitcher plants eat animals?
Pitcher plants are accurately named: they look like enormous green pitchers full of fresh water. The rims of their giant pitcher-shaped bodies are covered in nectar that attracts insects, and the water lures in bigger animals, like baby salamanders. When the animals or insects fall into the pitcher, they are doomed. The plant slowly digests the insect or animal with a mixture of microorganisms and digestive enzymes.
As for the salamanders, researchers aren’t yet sure if they are lured into the pitcher plant because they are looking for the comparative safety of the dark water or if the pitcher plants are in the prime positions to encourage the animals to slip and fall into the plants’ watery digestive depths.
Do other plants eat animals?
While the pitcher plant is unusual in its ability to eat vertebrates, there are plenty of other plants that effectively eat insects. From the Portuguese sundew which traps and digests insects on its leaves to the corkscrew plant which feasts on microscopic organisms and protozoans in the soil, plants have a lot more going on than we tend to give them credit for. And while pitcher plants may have been enjoying salamander-based meals for centuries, this new and incredible discovery is just one more sign that we don’t know everything, especially when it comes to plants.