If you’re paddling through the Kawartha Highlands or taking a jaunt through Peterborough’s Jackson Park, you may have the chance to bear witness to one of the coolest (spookiest?) adaptations of the plant kingdom, carnivory! I’m sure many of you are aware of the infamous Venus Fly Trap, but perhaps you may not be aware of some of the carnivorous plants that may live in your own backyard. Here in the Kawarthas we are host to several groups of carnivorous plants, all of which have their own unique “hunting” strategies. Generally, carnivorous plants are found in areas that have poor nutrient availability.
Because of their unique adaptation, they are able to gather nutrients from insects (or even salamanders!) and out-compete nearby species that rely on nutrients available in the soil or water. When more nutrients are abundant and available for plants to use, carnivorous plants find themselves quickly out-competed by other vegetation. Therefore, these plants have very specific habitat requirements. Bogs, alvars, and groundwater driven ecosystems are all prime areas in which to find these elusive plants.
Unfortunately, human activities can force these beautiful carnivores out of their habitats. Many human activities mobilize nutrients within the soil or atmosphere allowing other species to out-compete them in their habitat eventually leading to their demise. Agriculture can lead to an increase in nutrients through animal excrement making its way into waterways, fertilizers spreading off farms through rainwater runoff and carried by the wind, or nutrients deep in the soil brought up to the surface through tilling. Urban developments can also lead to an increase in available nutrients, through maintaining landscaping, increased soil erosion, or rainwater runoff carrying sediment.
Surprisingly, it is still possible in some secluded places to find carnivorous plants south of the Kawartha Lakes, in an area dominated by agriculture and urban development. So let’s meet these interesting plants, and learn where might you find them.
In the Kawarthas there are two species of Pitcher Plants that are commonly found. These were my introduction to native plant carnivory for a good reason; they are stunning! Often found in the nutrient poor lakes and bogs of the Canadian Shield, you can often see them peeking out from clumps of moss to show insects the entrance to their watery grave. Fine hairs point downward into the pitcher forcing insects towards a small pool of water filled with digestive enzymes. Once a bug is trapped at the bottom of the pitcher, they are gradually digested and used by the plant for the nutrients that they carry.
South of the Kawartha Lakes, it is possible to find these plants in secluded wetlands that have been mostly spared from human activity. I personally have a hunch that there are pitcher plants hidden somewhere in Harper Park. If you happen find some in there, let me know and there may be a (little) prize for you!
I’ll admit, I often forget about Bladderworts when it comes to local carnivores. Their unassuming little yellow flowers don’t invite much suspicion, until you realize that they’re a plant with no (apparent) leaves! Floating across lakes and ponds, most of this plant’s biomass is beneath the surface. If you look at the plant below the water surface you will see little round clumps that are capable of trapping passers by. Initially, these “bladders” are deflated sacks with tiny hairs that act as triggers. When an unassuming daphnia or other tiny aquatic critter touch one of the hairs the bladder quickly inflates, sucking in the creature to be digested. There are several species of Bladderwort in the Kawarthas and some can be spotted nearby Peterborough, Lindsay, Orillia, or other towns in the Land Between.
Sundews are unassuming little plants, with such a pleasant sounding name. However if you’re an insect tempted by the dew looking nectar on the tips of it’s hairs, you might be in for a sticky surprise! Once insects land on the leaves and are trapped, the sundew secretes enzymes to slowly digest it’s prey. Somehow this plant knows the difference between a tasty treat, and inedible material, as it will not secrete enzymes to digest items such as dirt, or tree bark.
These little plants can often be found clinging on to floating woody debris in wetlands, or among the mosses and lichens commonly found in bogs. There are a few sightings of sundews south of the Kawartha Lakes, but they are much less commonly than in places such as the Kawartha Highlands.
I hope you enjoyed this spooky insight into some of our local carnivores. Happy Halloween!