We all too readily demonize parasites. It is kind of understandable though. The thought of something living in or on you at your expense is enough to make our skin crawl. There are a lot of evolutionary pressures that make us look unfavorably about organisms with such lifestyles. However, to completely write parasites off as a bane to life as we know it may be a huge mistake on our part. More and more we are realizing that parasites play an important role in ecosystem functioning and may even serve as indicators of environmental health.
Plants are no stranger to such parasitic dynamics. Many species have forgone some if not all photosynthetic ability in exchange for a parasitic lifestyle. There is no question that plant parasites can and do have net negative effects on their hosts, however, its never that simple. Research is showing that parasitic plants can have profound effects on the structure and productivity of surrounding plant communities.
For starters, parasitic plants can increase the competitive ability of non-host species. By knocking back the performance of their host, other plant species can pick up the slack so-to-speak. This can often lead to an increase in overall plant diversity in a given habitat. A common thread throughout studies that have looked at parasitic plants is that proportion of grasses declined when parasitic plants were present. This made room for less competitive forbs to increase in number. In effect, parasitic plants can level the playing field for other, less competitive plant species.
By altering ecosystem structure, parasitic plants can also alter the way nutrients flow through the system. This can have some seriously profound ramifications. For instance, the presence of the hemiparasitic Rhinanthus minor in grasslands has been shown to increasing rates of nitrogen cycling. Though the ramifications of this are dynamic, it is nonetheless proof that parasites should not simply be maligned and that, despite our perspective, nature is far more complex than we realize.
Photo Credit: Sannse (Wikimedia Commons)