Grasses That Feign Infestation


Given the option, most of us would rather avoid a salad riddled with insects or an apple chock full of worms. Much as we prefer to avoid insect-infested fruits and vegetables, so too do many herbivores. Some plants seem to be taking advantage of this. In response to strong herbivore pressure, some plant species have evolved insect mimicry. One such case involves grass and aphids. 

Paspalum paspaloides can be found growing in tropical regions around the globe. In many ways they are similar to other C4 grasses. When they flower, however, one may notice something interesting. All of the flowers appear to be covered in aphids. Close inspection would reveal that this is not the case. Those clusters of dark specks swaying the breeze are simply the numerous dark anthers of the inflorescence. This has led some to hypothesize that these plants may be mimicking an aphid infestation.

This observation begs the question: "what benefit is there in mimicking aphids?" There are two major hypotheses that have been proposed in order to explain this phenomenon. The first is defense against herbivory. As stated above, herbivores often avoid plant material that has been infested with insects. Aside from any potential palatability issues, large populations of insect pests can signal a decrease in the nutritional value of a potential food source. Why waste time eating something that is already being eaten? Evidence in support of this hypothesis has come from other systems. A wide array of herbivores, both mammalian and insect, have been shown to avoid aphid-infested plant material.


The second hypothesis is one of avoiding future infestations. Aphids are clonal organisms with a short generation time. It does not take long for a few aphids to become many, and many to become an infestation. As such, aphids looking for a new plant to colonize habitually avoid plants that already have aphids on them. It could very well be that such aphid mimicry is a means by which the grass keeps actual aphids at bay.

If this is a form of true mimicry then the question is not a matter of which hypothesis but the relative influence of each. It seems that it very well could be driven by a mixture of both strategies. Still, all of this is speculative until actual experiments are carried out. Those who originally put forth these ideas have identified similar potential mimicry systems in other plants as well. The idea is ripe for the testing!

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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 ( and Wolfram Burner (

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