Sand Armor

Plants go through a lot to protect themselves from the hungry jaws of herbivores. They have evolved a multitude of ways in which to do this - toxins, stinging hairs, thorns, and even camouflage. And now, thanks to research by a team from UC Davis, we can add sand to this list. 

At this point you may be asking "sand?!" Stick with me here. Undoubtedly you have noticed that sticky plants often have bits of whatever substrate they are growing in stuck to their stems and leaves. You wouldn't be the first to notice this. Back in 1996 a term was coined for this very phenomenon. It has been called “psammophory,” which translates to "sand-carrying."

Over 200 species of plants hailing from 88 genera in 34 families have been identified as psammorphorous. The nature of this habit has been an object of inquiry for at least a handful of researchers over the last few decades. Hypotheses have ranged from protection from physical abrasion, reduction of water loss, reduced surface temperature, reduced solar radiation, and protection from herbivory. 

It was this last hypothesis that seemed to stick. Indeed, many plants produce crystalline structures in their tissues (phytoliths, raphides, etc., which are often silica or calcium based) to deter herbivores. Sand, being silica based, is known to cause tooth wear in humans, ungulates, and rodents. Perhaps a coating of sand is enough to drive away insects and other hungry critters looking to snack on a plant. 

By controlling the amount and color of the sand stuck to plants, the researchers were able to demonstrate that plants covered in sand were less palatable to both mammalian and insect herbivores. In total, sand-covered individuals received significantly less damage to their leaves than individuals that had their sand coat removed. By altering the color of the sand, the researchers were able to demonstrate that this was not a function of camouflage. In total, the presence of sand led to an overall increase in fitness due to a decrease in damage over time. These results are the first conclusive evidence in support of psammophory as yet another fantastic plant defense mechanism. 

Photo Credit: Franco Folini (bit.ly/1RApG1R) and Wolfram Burner (
http://bit.ly/1RMNR9V)

Further Reading:
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/wol1/doi/10.1890/15-1696/abstract