Wildlife

Award-winning photos capture doomed salamanders in Algonquin Park

Otherworldly shots captured by science and conservation photojournalist Samantha Stephens show spotted salamanders trapped by carnivorous northern pitcher plants

  • Published Aug 18, 2023
  • Updated Aug 21
  • 884 words
  • 4 minutes
For a northern pitcher plant used to capturing small insects and moths, a juvenile salamander (or two) would be a huge meal. Researchers are currently trying to determine if the plants are digesting and using the nutrients from the salamanders. Photo: Samantha Stephens
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As winter approaches, young spotted salamanders in Algonquin Provincial Park, Ont., make their way from their aquatic hatching grounds to the forests. But as they cross the bogs on the way, an unexpected predator awaits, patient and still. Very still. Carnivorous northern pitcher plants are known to capture moths and flies, breaking them down with their digestive juices. But the discovery that these plants could also devour vertebrate prey was a revelation. Science and conservation photojournalist Samantha Stephens has captured a series of otherworldly shots of these doomed salamanders.

When Canadian Geographic caught up with Stephens to learn more about her work, she was in Algonquin Park, her home away from home every summer and fall since 2019. While there, she documents the research taking place at the Algonquin Wildlife Research Station and communicates the researchers’ work (including in this salamander-themed blog post).

The finding in 2018 that young salamanders are ending up drowning in pitcher plants is a wild one and Stephens has tagged along with the researchers as they complete surveys and collect data. Are the unlucky salamanders just falling in? Are the pitcher plants actively attracting them? Are the plants using nutrients from the salamanders? Stephens talks about how the salamander mystery is progressing — and how she came to frame the perfect shots.

Instead of drawing nutrients from its roots, a northern pitcher plant relies on trapping prey — moths and flies — in its pitcher. In 2018, researchers at the Algonquin Wildlife Research Station discovered a new item on the plant's menu: juvenile spotted salamanders. Photo: Samantha Stephens
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Science and conservation photojournalist Samantha Stephens captured her images of trapped salamanders at dusk — shining a light through the northern pitcher plant's "pitcher trap" to illuminate the deceased salamanders. Photo: Samantha Stephens
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On her salamander-themed photo series

Bright daylight makes it hard to spot salamanders in the pitchers, so researchers began going out at dusk — there was enough light that they could still see where they were going, but they could also use their headlamps to illuminate the pitchers and look for the shadow of a salamander body in the liquid. Often the liquid was murky and the salamanders were decomposed. “When they they die, it is only a brief period of time that they float at the surface. It’s even rarer to have two salamanders that happen to be together and floating. So it’s only when everything come together that I can get the perfect shot.”

The juvenile salamanders in this area of Algonquin Park leave their natal habitat each fall and travel to the adjacent forest to over-winter beneath the forest floor. Along the way, they travel over a bog mat, where the pitcher plants await. Photo: Samantha Stephens
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Stephens’ series of illuminated photos are truly arresting. But though she is proud of the artistry, she says she is more thrilled that her shots make people stop and think. “The whole reason I do photography is to communicate science. Being able to create an image that makes people curious to know the story, that’s what makes me most excited about these images,” she says. “Also, I feel like plants need to get some spotlight once in a while. People don’t normally think of plants doing interesting things — and these ones definitely do!”

While Stephens definitely has more illuminated shots in mind, she has also been documenting a different kind of salamander project — a long-term study that has been ongoing since 2009 looking at how their body condition is being affected by climate change.

On the ongoing salamander + pitcher plant research

Researchers originally wondered if the unlucky salamanders were simply falling into the pitcher plants, but a few pieces of evidence they’ve collected so far suggest otherwise. For one, pitcher plants are quite tall, around 15 cm, so the salamanders have to actively climb into them. What is it about the pitchers that attracts them?

The research is ongoing, but Stephens notes that the findings so far lead to more questions. For instance, the colouring of some pitcher plants is quite red while others are more green — the shading is a result of a combination of nutrients, sunlight and the size of the plants. “But the population of pitcher plants that are capturing the salamanders is very green compared to some of the other populations in the park. And their pitchers are like quite a bit larger than other populations in the park.” Researchers are also doing isotope work to look for the isotope signature of salamanders within the tissue of the pitcher plant, with preliminary results indicating that the pitcher plants do seem to be absorbing the salamander nutrients.

On the importance of the research station’s work

When Stephens gets asked to discuss her pitcher plant photos or talk about other stories coming out of the Algonquin Wildlife Research Station, she says she always tries to educate about the importance of supporting research stations, which make it possible to undertake long-term monitoring and studies in the same place year after year.

“It’s only when you can be in a place for decades that you can pick out patterns in nature and notice when something’s different,” she says. “And discoveries like the salamanders being eaten by the pitcher plants really only happen if you have people are out there year after year making observations. Having places like the research station are really important to making these serendipitous discoveries.”

On her favourite salamander “fun fact”

Because salamanders spend most of their lives underground, we don’t see and hear them. And that means most people don’t really think about them. But Stephens notes that the biomass of all those tiny salamanders at Algonquin Park would likely rival the biomass of the giant charismatic mammals most campers go searching for — think moose and bears. “When you add up the weight and the effect of salamanders in the landscape, it’s huge. And yet we just don’t notice them.”

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