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.
Bladderworts, these strange carnivorous plants produce beautiful little flowers and sprout out stem-like stolons with numerous tiny vacuum traps under water, or underground, to capture and consume their minute prey. Often their flowers are the best way to identify these curious plants, and there are 12 species that are found on Long Island. Of those 12 species, 10 have yellow flowers, and 2 have purple flowers.
The first photograph, is of the purple flowers of the Eastern Purple Bladderwort, Utricularia purpurea. This aquatic plant is found freely floating in the water of a number of ponds in the pine barrens of Long Island, with their masses of traps arranged as branching whorls along their long stolons. In the second and third photographs, we see the flower of the Lavender Bladderwort, Utricularia resupinata, and the fourth photo shows its ripening fruit. This plant grows affixed to the soil and sends its traps underground, with only its flower visible to the world above. Mostly growing in sandy or somewhat mucky substrates, it sometimes goes for long periods of time without flowering. On Long Island, the plant is only known from two coastal plains ponds, and it seems to flower most when the water levels become low, in shallow water or very wet soil. Though the flowers may be very small, they are magnificent in their delicate beauty.
For the fifth photograph, we have the yellow flowers of the Horned Bladderwort, Utricularia cornuta. Most of the locations where this plant grows on Long Island, tends to be ponds that are isolated and go through periods of drying out, or brimming full with rain water, depending on the year. Some years will find a pond dried of its surface water, but where the soil still remains saturated. When this occurs, the pond basin completely fills with an explosion of growth of Utricularia cornuta. Appearing as a pleasant summer meadow bathed in the sunlight, a low field of little yellow flowers, that gently trembles with the wind of a passing breeze.
Sarracenia purpurea, the purple pitcher plant, grows naturally in the Suffolk County Boglands. Some of their habitats are along the tributaries to the Peconic River, others in sunny and wet meadows of Sphagnum moss among the watershed. This location is on a floating Sphagnum mat in the middle of a pond, surrounded by uplands woods, and this place is of special interest because of its history. During the 1990’s, the land was bought by a developer, and slated to be paved over for a parking lot for a new shopping center. The one thing that had prevented this development, was that the pond was found to support a breeding population of the Eastern Tiger Salamander, Ambystoma tigrinum. While the Salamander lives in other areas of the eastern US, and even a few small parts of Canada, Long Island is the creature’s northern-most range along the Atlantic coastal seaboard. In New York State, it is only found on Long Island, and its populations have been dwindling due to development, and contamination of its breeding ponds from pesticides and other pollutants. And so it is considered as an Endangered Species, and its breeding ponds are designated as Class 1 wetlands in the State of New York. Because the Tiger Salamanders were found at this location, the pond and a large tract of the surrounding woodlands were set aside for a nature preserve. Other rare and interesting flora and fauna of the coastal plains community type of habitat exist in this preserve as well, including the Sarracenia purpurea seen here in these photographs.
Sarracenia purpurea is found across the eastern seaboard of the US and across parts of Canada. It exists in many areas of upstate New York, but on Long Island it is steadily disappearing from many of its historically known locations. There are a number of populations that persist, but they are fewer in number, and in habitats that are under stress, and so it becoming more and more unusual to find these fantastic plants in their wild habitat on Long Island. Of the habitats that are left, this is one of the most beautiful sites, with some of the finest and healthiest specimens found in the remaining locations on the island. It is thanks to the Tiger Salamander being found at this site, that the location and surrounding habitat were preserved and protected. Otherwise these pitcher plants in the photographs would no longer exist, nor would the floating Sphagnum bog where they grow, and all the other interesting creatures that live here would be gone as well. The land would have been dug out, flattened, and paved over for a parking lot for shopping convenience. Here is a wonderful example of how protecting one species of life can help preserve the ecosystems and habitats where they exist, as well as all the other life which live within, and depend upon, these beautiful and fascinating places. Sometimes in what looks to be an empty lot of undeveloped land in the back of a shopping center, there can be a rich and biodiverse ecosystem, flourishing with strange creatures while thousands of everyday people come and go all around it, day after day, completely unaware.