Utricularia, the bladderworts, are carnivorous plants which capture their prey through their bladder traps by sucking them in through a trap door, and seizing them in a pod to digest and consume their hapless victims. Some of these plants are aquatic, others are terrestrial, though all have traps that depend on being submerged in water to operate. Here, floating in the water of a sunny pond, is the Common Bladderwort (Utricularia macrorhiza). In this first photograph, we have a close look at the structure of this plant and its traps, bringing us into its aquatic world. For the second photograph, the traps of the Eastern Purple Bladderwort (Utricularia purpurea) are visible floating just beneath the water’s surface. It can be seen how the traps are arranged on branching filaments, emanating from radial whorls along the main stem-like stolon. The third photograph, is of a Green Frog (Rana clamitans) sitting in the suspended muck of a slurry of peat and water, at the edge of a floating Sphagnum bog along a tributary to the Peconic River.
Among the brush at the edge of another nearby pond, a Female American Bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana), is caught by the Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon). A gruesome sight to witness, as the snake slowly drew the still living frog deeper into its mouth, the victim’s panicked cries of fear and desperation becoming fainter as it began to disappear, sliding further down into the serpent’s gullet until it was little more than a silent lump deep in the snake’s belly. This theatric drama of life and death, played itself out mere steps from a boat launch used for recreational fishing by people who wish to enjoy the peaceful tranquility of this pond. It is a harsh reminder of how the laws of nature transpire, whereas an insect will be eaten by the frog, the frog will be eaten by the snake, and the snake will be eaten by the heron. All creatures great and small, are a part of this continuous cycle of life and death. Nature in all its glory, though it may be beautiful, can also seem ruthless in its lack of compassion. It is not from any cruel intention of brutality, but is simply the unforgiving competition of survival of the fittest, to advance life to ever greater complexities, by adapting to overcome the most insurmountable challenges.
Eastern Tiger Salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum) are among the many interesting creatures found in the Suffolk County Boglands of Long Island, and these are a coastal plain lineage, subspecies (Ambystoma tigrinum tigrinum). They are known as Mole Salamanders, which spend most of their adult lives underground in burrows, except for when they emerge on rainy nights in the late winter, around February or March, to breed and lay their eggs in small ponds. Each female lays an egg mass that can contain up to 100 eggs which hatch in about two to six weeks, from late March to April depending on the water temperatures. The larvae are aquatic and small, measuring around a half an inch at hatching. As they begin to feed, they grow larger, and go through a metamorphosis growing limbs and transforming to terrestrial adults in a few months, usually by July, when they crawl out from the ponds and disperse, to begin their dark, subterranean lives underground.
These specimens seen in the photographs are of the aquatic larval stage, who some people call “water dogs”. Swimming through the water, with large, broad heads, and feathery gills ravenously eating anything that they can fit into their mouths, sometimes even the smaller members of their own species. Small crustaceans, insect larvae, molluscs, leeches, frog tadpoles, and the larvae of other salamander species are some of the many other things that they will eat as well. Their juvenile existence in the pond also consists of avoiding being eaten by predators such as larger aquatic insects, frogs, snakes, and birds. It is a highly competitive struggle for survival that these creatures are destined for, with only a small percentage of them ever reaching adulthood. Their natural predators may present formidable dangers for the salamanders, but it is the human influences that are the greatest threat to their long-term survival. Long ago, it is thought that all vernal ponds with sandy soils on Long Island once had Tiger Salamanders breeding in them. But today it is estimated that only about 90 ponds with breeding populations are left, and of those only about 13% are considered to be of excellent viability. Increasing development and pollution of their habitats are eradicating these strange and rarely seen creatures, at a rate that could unfortunately see them disappear from our local natural wildlands forever.
Interesting creatures are often seen within the fantastic habitats of carnivorous plants across Long Island. Some can be somewhat common, while others rare. But all are beautiful in their own ways, and are always wonderful to discover. Visits to the Sphagnum bogs and ponds near the Peconic River were where these photographs were taken, and these are just a few of the interesting subjects that were observed on those summer days. In the first photograph, a cluster of traps of the spoonleaf sundew, Drosera intermedia, with brilliant red coloration is seen. The second photograph, we have a detail of these traps sparkling in the mid-day sun, showing the particular shape of the traps of this species. For the third photograph, a detailed look of a trap from the hybrid sundew, Drosera x belezeana (Drosera rotundifolia x intermedia). Known from other parts of the world, this hybrid was recorded for the first time in New York, by the author in the summer of 2012. This particular trap is a great example of the blending of characteristics between the parent species. For quick observation, the trap appears much like that of Drosera rotundifolia, yet is nowhere as wide, and a little more elongated, inheriting some traits from Drosera intermedia.
Onto the fourth photograph, there is a trap from the purple pitcher plant, Sarracenia purpurea, springing forth from its mossy habitat of the Sphagnum bog. The fifth photograph, is a flower of the Broadleaf Arrowhead, Sagittaria latifolia, which often grows near carnivorous plants in the wetter parts of the habitats. Sometimes known as the Duck Potato, which is strange, because ducks rarely eat the tubers of this plant. And for the final photograph, we see a female Green Frog, Lithobates clamitans, sitting on the edge of a coastal plains pond. The frog was very cooperative, allowing for close-up photographs with a 50mm lens coupled with a set of macro tubes. Was she remaining so perfectly still hoping to go unnoticed by a potential predator? Or was she gracefully posing for the photography session, basking in the adoration and recognition of her glorious beauty? I asked, but she only replied “ribbit”.
Where the carnivorous plants grow, there are many other denizens of the bogs, ponds and wetlands. Some of these other denizens produce beautiful flowers, and they often do so around the time when the carnivorous plants are at the peak of their growing season. When exploring the habitats for carnivorous plants, one will invariably encounter the intricate and colorful flowers that are neighbors to the carnivores which are the focus of this project. In the first photograph, there is Rose Coreopsis, Coreopsis rosea, with a tiny crab spider concealed and laying in wait for a potential meal. The plant is usually found along the coastal plains pond shores where many carnivorous plants grow as well. The second photograph is of the Meadow Beauty, Rhexia viginica, also found along coastal plains pond shores and frequently accompanying carnivorous plants in wet, sandy habitats. The third photograph is of the Bog White Violet, Viola lanceolata. Quite commonly seen, it is pictured at the edge of another coastal plains pond. The fourth photograph shows the bog-orchid Rose Pogonia, Pogonia ophioglossoides. This image was taken at a Sphagnum bog where Atantic White Cedar and the pitcher plant, Sarracenia purpurea grow, along with many other species of carnivorous plants. The fifth, and final photograph, is of the Grass Pink bog-orchid, Calopogon tuberosus. This location is in a sand dune swale that dips to the ground water, keeping the sandy soil consistently wet with fresh water. The sunny meadow habitat is protected by stunted pine trees, and is accompanied by a fantastic population of the threadleaf sundew, Drosera filiformis. These are but a few of the many interesting and beautiful flowers that are seen in the habitats of carnivorous plants. They add delightful additions to the natural history wonders encountered when exploring these wetlands, and create a charming balance to the seemingly sinister nature of the carnivorous plants.