Dodder: Parasite & Gene Thief Extraordinaire

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Apparently dodder (Cuscuta spp.) steals more than just water and nutrients from their hosts. They also steal genetic material. The movement of genetic material from the genome of one organism into the genome of another is called ‘horizontal gene transfer’ and it is surprisingly common in nature. Microbes like bacteria do it all the time and more and more we are finding examples in more complex organisms like plants (here and here). For plants, there is little evidence that the acquired genes serve many, if any, functions. This is not the case for dodder. It appears that many of the foreign genes within the dodder genome are being utilized.

Dodder are obligate parasites. They produce no chlorophyl nor any roots. Instead, they tap into their hosts vascular tissues via specialized structures on their stems called haustoria. It may be the intimacy of this parasitic connection that facilitates such high rates of gene transfer. Regardless of how they got there, the amount of genetic foreign material in the dodder genome is shocking. What’s more, much of it is functional.

Researchers have identified over 100 genes that have been added to the dodder genome via horizontal gene transfer. These genes comes from a wide variety of host lineages, including representatives from the orders Malpighiales, Caryophyllales, Fabales, Malvales, Rosales, and Brassicales. Interestingly, between 16 and 20 of these genes are thought to have been retained from the common ancestor of all living dodder species, which suggests that horizontal gene transfer occurred early on in the evolution of these parasites.

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Amazingly, the function of many of these genes appear to have been co-opted by dodder for use in their own biology. Not only were many of these genes complete copies, they were being actively transcribed by the dodder genome and are therefore functional. These include genes being used for the development of houstoria, genes being used for defense responses, and genes being used for amino acid metabolism. Researchers also found an instance of a gene that codes for micro RNAs. The micro RNAs are actually sent back into the host plant and may play a role in silencing host defense genes, allowing dodder to be a more successful parasite.

The plants themselves may not be able to select which genes get transferred. Indeed, some 42 regions of the stolen genome appear to have no function at all. Still, natural selection appears to be acting on newly acquired genes, incorporating those that serve a useful function and silencing the rest. We still don’t know exactly how this process unfolds over time, nor if gene transfer from host to parasite is largely a one-way street. Still, the evidence suggests that horizontal gene transfer is an important process in parasitic plant species and may contribute to their success through evolutionary time.

Photo Credits: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1] [2]

The Smallest of the Giants

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There are a lot of cool ways to discover a new species but what about tripping over one? That is exactly how Rafflesia consueloae was found. Researchers from the University of the Philippines Los Baños were walking through the forest back in 2014 when one of them tripped over something. To their surprise, it was the bloom of a strange parasitic plant.

This was an exciting discovery because it meant that that strange family of holoparasitic plants called Rafflesiaceae just got a little bit bigger. Rafflesiaceae is famous the world over for the size of its flowers. Whereas the main body of plants in this family consists of tiny thread-like structures living within the tissues of forest vines, the flowers of many are huge. In fact, with a flower 3 feet (1 meter) in diameter, which can weigh as much as 24 lbs. (11 kg), Rafflesia arnoldii  produces the largest flower on the planet. This new species of Rafflesia, however, is a bit of a shrimp compared to its cousins.

In fact, R. consueloae produces the smallest flowers of the genus. Of the individuals that have been found, the largest flower clocked in at 3.83 inches (9.37 cm) in diameter. Needless to say, this was an exciting discovery and those responsible for it quickly set about observing the plant in detail. Cameras were set up to monitor flower development as well as to keep track of any animals that might pay it a visit. It turns out that, like its cousins, R. consueloae appears to be a specialist parasite on a group of vines in the genus Tetrastigma.

One of the unique characteristics of R. consueloae, other than its size, is the fact that its flowers don’t seem to produce any noticeable scent. This is a bit odd considering that its cousins are frequently referred to as “corpse flowers” thanks to the fact that they both look and smell like rotting meat. That is not to say that this species produces no scent at all. In fact, researchers noted that the fruits of R. consueloae smell a bit like coconut.

Its discoverers were quick to note that the discovery of such a strange parasitic plant in this particular stretch of forest is exciting because of the state of disrepair the forest is in. This region has suffered heavily from deforestation and fragmentation and it has long been thought that such specialized parasites like those in the genus Rafflesia could not persist after logging. As such, this discovery offers at least some hope that they may not be as sensitive as we once thought. Still, that does not mean that R. consueloae is by any means secure in its future.

To date, R. consueloae has only been found growing in two localities in Pantabangan, Phillippines. Though it is possible that more populations will be found growing elsewhere, its limited distribution nonetheless places it at high risk for extinction. Further habitat loss and the potential for anthropogenic forest fires are considerable threats to these plants and the hosts they simply can’t live without.

Despite plenty of observation, no one is quite sure how this species manages to reproduce successfully. Individual flowers are said to be either male or female but without a scent, its hard to say who or what pollinates them. Similarly, it still remains a mystery as to how R. consueloae (or any of its relatives for that matter) accomplish seed dispersal. Some small mammals were seen feeding on fruits but what happens after that is anyone’s guess. It seems like the various Rafflesiaceae still have many mysteries to be solved.

Photo Credit: [1]

Further Reading: [1]

 

The Largest Mistletoe

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When we think of mistletoes, we generally think about those epiphytic parasites living on branches way up in the canopy. The mistletoe we are discussing in this post, however, is a decent sized tree. Nuytsia floribunda is a native of western Australia where it is known locally as moojar or the Christmas tree. To the best of our knowledge, it is the largest mistletoe known to science.

Nuytsia floribunda is a member of the so-called showy mistletoe family (Loranthaceae). It along with all of its mistletoe cousins reside in the order Santalales but from a phylogenetic standpoint, the family Loranthaceae is considered sister to all other mistletoes. This has excited my botanists as it allows us a chance to better understand how parasitism may have evolved in this group as a whole.

Speaking of parasitism, there are some incredible things going on with N. floribunda that are worth talking about. For starters, it is not fully parasitic but rather hemiparasitic. As you can tell by looking at the tree decked out in a full canopy of leaves, N. floribunda is entirely capable of photosynthesizing on its own. In fact, experts feel that it is fully capable of meeting all of its own carbohydrate needs. Instead, it parasitizes other plants in order to acquire water and minerals. How it manages this is remarkable to say the least.

Nuytsia floribunda is a root parasite. Its own roots fan out into the surrounding soil looking for other roots to parasitize. Amazingly, exploratory roots of individual N. floribunda have been found upwards of 110 meters (360 ft.) or more away from the tree. When N. floribunda do find a suitable host root, something incredible happens. It begins to form specialized roots called “haustoria”, which to form a collar-like structure around the host’s roots.

Whole haustoria of Nuytsia (white [ha]) and host root (dark brown). * indicates `gland' and developing `cutting device.

Whole haustoria of Nuytsia (white [ha]) and host root (dark brown). * indicates `gland' and developing `cutting device.

The collar gradually swells and a small horn forms on the inside of the haustoria. Swelling of the haustoria is the result of an influx of water and as the pressure around the host root builds, the haustorial horn of N. floribunda physically cuts into its victim. Once this cut is formed, the haustoria form balloon-like outgrowths which intrude into the xylem tissues of the host root, thus forming the connection that allows N. floribunda to start stealing the water and minerals it needs.

Even more amazing is the fact that roots aren’t the only thing that N. floribunda will attempt to exploit. Many inanimate objects have been found wrapped up in a haustorial embrace including dead twigs, rocks, fertilizer granuals, and even electric cables! Its non-selective parasitic nature appears to have left it open to exploring other, albeit dead end options. I don’t want to paint the picture that this tree as the enemy of surrounding vegetation. It is worth noting that N. floribunda extracts very little from any given host so its impact is spread out among the surrounding vegetation, making its overall impact on host plants minimal most of the time.

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Provided its needs have been met, N. floribunda puts on one heck of a show around December. In fact, the timing of its blooms is the reason it earned the common name of Christmas tree. Flowering for this species is not a modest affair. Each tree is capable of producing multiple meter-long inflorescences decked out in sprays of bright orange to yellow flowers. The flowers themselves produce copious amounts of pollen and nectar, making it an important food source for resident pollinators. Though many different species have been documented visiting the flowers, it is thought that beetles and wasps are the most effective at pollination.

Seed dispersal for N. floribunda is mainly via wind. Each fruit is adorned with three prominent wings. After they detach from the tree, the fruits usually break apart into three samaras, each with its own wing. The key for success of any propagule is ending up in a site suitable for germination. According to some, this can be a bit tricky and attempts at cultivating this plant in captivity have not been terribly successful. It would seem that nature knows best when it comes to reproductive success in N. floribunda. It may be worth trying to figure it out though because recent evidence suggests that this species is not faring well with human development. As the surrounding landscapes of western Australia become more and more urbanized, plants like N. floribunda seem to be on the decline. Perhaps renewed interest in growing this species could change the tide for it as well as others.

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Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4]

Something Strange in Mexico

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I assure you that what you are looking at here is indeed a plant. I would like you to meet the peculiar Lacandonia schismatica, one of roughly 55 species belonging to the family Triuridaceae. Not a single member of this family bothers with leaves or even chlorphyll. Instead, all members are mycoheterotrophic, meaning they make their living by parasitizing fungi in the soil. However, that is not why L. schismatica is so strange. Before we get to that, however, it is worth getting to know this plant a little bit better.

The sole member of its genus, Lacandonia schismatica grows in only a few locations in the Lancandon Jungle of southeastern Mexico. Its populations are quite localized and are under threat by encroaching agricultural development. Genetic analyses of the handful of known populations revealed that there is almost no genetic diversity to speak of among the individuals of this species. All in all, these factors have landed this tiny parasite on the endangered species list.

Mature flower of  Lacandonia schismatica . Three yellowish anthers (center) surrounded by rings of red carpels. Scale bar = 0.5cm.”  [SOURCE]

Mature flower of Lacandonia schismatica. Three yellowish anthers (center) surrounded by rings of red carpels. Scale bar = 0.5cm.” [SOURCE]

To figure out why L. schismatica is so peculiar, you have to take a closer look at its flowers. If you knew what to look for, you would soon realize that L. schismatica appear to be doing things in reverse. To the best of our knowledge, L. schismatica is the only plant in the world that known to have an inverted flower arrangement. The anthers of this species are clustered in the center of the flower surrounded by a ring of 60 or so pistils. The flowers are cleistogamous, which means they are fertilized before they even open, hence the lack of genetic diversity among individuals. 

Not all of its flowers take on this appearance. Researchers have found that in any given population, a handful of unisexual flowers will sometimes be produced. Even the bisexual flowers themselves seem to exhibit at least some variation in the amount of sexual organs present. Still, when bisexual flowers are produced, they only ever exhibit this odd inverted arrangement.

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It is not quite clear how this system could have evolved in this species. Indeed, this unique floral morphology has made this species very hard to classify. Genetic analysis suggests a relation to the mycoheterotrphic family Triuridaceae. It was discovered that every once in a while, a closely related species known as Triuris brevistylis will sometimes produce flowers with a similar inverted morphology.

This suggests that the inversion evolved before the Lacandonia schismatica lineage diverged. One can only speculate at this point. The future of this species is quite uncertain. Climate change and habitat destruction could permanently alter the conditions so that this plant can no longer exist in the wild. This is further complicated by the fact that this species has proven to be quite difficult to cultivate. Only time will tell. For now, more research is needed on this peculiar plant.

Photo Credit: [1] [2] [3]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4]

Is Love Vine Parasitizing Wasps?

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No, that's not dodder (Cuscuta sp.), its love vine (Cassytha filiformis), a member of the same family as the avacados in your kitchen (Lauraceae). It is a pantropical parasite that makes its living stealing water and nutrients from other plants. To do so, it punctures their vascular tissues with specialized structures called "haustoria." Amazingly, a recent observation made in Florida suggests that this botanical parasite may also be taking advantage of other parasites, specifically gall wasps.

Gall wasps are also plant parasites. They lay their eggs in developing plant tissues and the larvae release compounds that coax the plant to form nutrient-rich galls packed full of starchy goodness. Essentially you can think of galls as edible nursery chambers for the wasp larvae. While looking for galls on sand live oak (Quercus geminata) growing in southern Florida, Dr. Scott Egan and his colleagues noticed something odd. A small vine seemed to be attaching itself to the galls.

Love vine draping a host plant. 

Love vine draping a host plant. 

The vine in question was none other than love vine and they were attached to galls growing on the underside of the oak leaves. What is strange is that, of all of the places that love vine likes to attach itself to its host (new stems, buds, petioles, and on the top and edge of leaves), the only time this vine showed any "interest" in the underside of oak leaves was when galls were present. Obviously this required further investigation.

The team discovered that at least two different species of gall wasps were being parasitized by love vine - one that produces small, spherical galls on the underside of oak leaves and one that forms large, multi-chambered galls on oak stems. Upon measuring the infected and uninfected galls, the team discovered that there were significant differences that could have real ecological significance.

(A)  Cassytha filiformis  vine attaching haustoria to a leaf gall induced by the wasp  Belonocnema treatae  on the underside of their host plant,  Quercus geminata . (B) Labeled graphic of insect gall, parasitic vine, and vine haustoria. (C) Box plots of leaf gall diameter for unparasitized galls (control) and galls that have been parasitized by  C. filiformis . (D) Proportion of  B. treatae  leaf galls that contained a dead ‘mummified’ adult for unparasitized galls (control) and galls that have been parasitized by the vine  C. filiformis .  [SOURCE]

(A) Cassytha filiformis vine attaching haustoria to a leaf gall induced by the wasp Belonocnema treatae on the underside of their host plant, Quercus geminata. (B) Labeled graphic of insect gall, parasitic vine, and vine haustoria. (C) Box plots of leaf gall diameter for unparasitized galls (control) and galls that have been parasitized by C. filiformis. (D) Proportion of B. treatae leaf galls that contained a dead ‘mummified’ adult for unparasitized galls (control) and galls that have been parasitized by the vine C. filiformis. [SOURCE]

For the spherical gall wasp, infected galls tended to be much larger, however, the team feels that this may actually be due to the fact that the vine "prefers" larger galls. Astonishingly, larvae living in the infected galls were 45% less likely to survive. For the multi-chambered gall wasp, infection by love vine was associated with a 13.5% decrease in overall gall size. They suggest this is evidence that love vine is having net negative impacts on these parasitic wasps.

Subsequent investigation revealed that these wasps were not alone. In total, the team found love vine attacking the galls of at least two other wasps and one species of gall-making fly (though no data were reported for these cases). To be sure that love vine was in fact parasitizing these galls, they needed to have a closer look at what the vine was actually doing.

Figure S2. (A)  Cassytha filiformis  vine attaching haustoria to a leaf gall induced by the wasp  Callirhytis quercusbatatoides  on the stem of their host plant,  Quercus geminata . (B) Labeled graphic of insect gall, parasitic vine, and vine haustoria on  C. quercusbatatoides . (C) Exemplar of parasitic vine wrapping tightly around the stem directly proximate to a gall induced by the wasp  Disholcaspis quercusvirens  on  Q. geminata . (D) Field site where love vine,  C. filiformis , is attacking the sand live oak,  Q. geminata , and many of the gall forming wasps on the same host plant.  [SOURCE]   

Figure S2. (A) Cassytha filiformis vine attaching haustoria to a leaf gall induced by the wasp Callirhytis quercusbatatoides on the stem of their host plant, Quercus geminata. (B) Labeled graphic of insect gall, parasitic vine, and vine haustoria on C. quercusbatatoides. (C) Exemplar of parasitic vine wrapping tightly around the stem directly proximate to a gall induced by the wasp Disholcaspis quercusvirens on Q. geminata. (D) Field site where love vine, C. filiformis, is attacking the sand live oak, Q. geminata, and many of the gall forming wasps on the same host plant. [SOURCE]
 

Dissection of the galls revealed that the haustoria were plugged into the gall itself, not the wasp larvae. However, because the larvae simply cannot develop without the nutrients and protection provided by the gall, Eagan and his colleagues conclude that these do indeed represent a case of a parasite being parasitized by another parasite.

At this point, the next question that must be asked is how common is this in love vine or, for that matter, across all other parasitic plants that utilize haustoria. Considering that parasites of parasites are nothing new in the biosphere, it is a safe bet that this will not be the last time this phenomenon is discovered.

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4]

Further Reading: [1]

The Desert Mistletoe: Evolution In Action

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There are a multitude of mistletoes on this planet (for example: 1, 2, 3) and all of them are parasites to one degree or another. I find parasitic plants absolutely fascinating because there are as many variations on this lifestyle as there are hosts to parasitize. On a recent botanical adventure in the Sonoran Desert, I met yet another representative of this group - the desert mistletoe (Phoradendron californicum). Once I knew what I was looking at, I could not wait to do some research. As it turns out, this species has garnered quite a bit of attention over the years and it is teaching us some interesting tidbits on how parasites may evolve.

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The desert mistletoe is not hard to spot, especially during the driest parts of the year when most of its host trees have shed their leaves. It looks like a leafless, tangled mass of pendulous stems sitting among the branches of larger shrubs and trees. It can be found growing throughout both the Mojave and Sonoran deserts and appears to prefer leguminous trees including palo verde (Parkinsonia florida), mesquite (Prosopis spp.), and Acacia.

The desert mistletoe is a type of hemiparasite, which means it is capable of performing photosynthesis but nonetheless relies on its host tree for water and other nutrients. Lacking leaves, the desert mistletoe meets all of its photosynthetic needs via its green stems. Its leafless habit also makes its flowers and fruit all the more conspicuous. Despite their small size, its flowers are really worth closer inspection. When in bloom, a desert mistletoe comes alive with the hum of various insects looking for energy-rich nectar and pollen. Even before you spot them, you can easily tell if there is a blooming mistletoe nearby as the flowers give off a wonderfully sweet aroma. It appears that the desert mistletoe takes no chances when it comes to reproduction in such an arid climate.

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As I mentioned above, the desert mistletoe has been the subject of inquiry over the last few decades. Researchers interested in how parasitic plants evolve have illuminated some intriguing aspects of the biology of this species, especially as its relates to host preference. It would appear that our interest in this species seems to be situated at an important time in its evolutionary history. Not all populations of desert mistletoe "behave" in the same way. In fact, each seems to be heading towards more intense specialization based on its preferred host.

By performing seed transplant experiments, researchers have demonstrated that various populations of desert mistletoe seem to be specializing on specific tree species. For instance, when seeds collected from mistletoe growing on Acacia were placed on paleo verde or mesquite, they experienced significantly less germination than if they were placed on another Acacia. Though the exact mechanisms aren't clear at this point in time, evidence suggests that the success of desert mistletoe may be influenced by various hormone levels within the host tree, with isolated populations becoming more specialized on the chemistry of their specific host in that region.

Speaking of isolation, there is also evidence to show that populations of desert mistletoe growing on different host trees are reproductively isolated as well. Populations growing on mesquite trees flower significantly later than populations growing on Acacia or palo verde. Essentially this means that their genes never have the chance to mix, thus increasing the differences between these populations. Again, it is not entirely certain how the host tree may be influencing mistletoe flowering time, however, hormones and water availability are thought to play a role.

Another intriguing idea, and one that has yet to be tested, are the roles that seed dispersers may play in this evolutionary drama. After pollination, the desert mistletoe produces copious amounts of bright red berries that birds find irresistible. Two birds in particular, the northern mockingbird and the Phainopepla, aggressively defend fruiting mistletoe shrubs within their territories. It could be possible that these birds may be influencing which trees the seeds of the desert mistletoe end up on. Again, this is just a hypothesis but one that certainly deserves more attention.

A Phainopepla on the lookout for mistletoe berries.

A Phainopepla on the lookout for mistletoe berries.

Love them or hate them, there is something worth admiring about mistletoes. At the very least, they are important components of their native ecology. What's more, species like the desert mistletoe have a lot to teach us about the way in which species interact and what that means for biodiversity.

Photo Credit: [1]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4]

Parasitic Plant Rediscovered After a 151 Year Absence

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Extinction is a hard status to confirm for many types organisms. Whereas discovering a new species requires finding only a single individual, declaring one extinct requires knowing that there are no individuals left at all. This is especially true when organisms live cryptic lifestyles, a point recently made quite apparent by the rediscovery of a small parasitic plant known scientifically ask Thismia neptunis.

Thismia neptunis is a type of parasite called a mycoheterotroph, which means it makes its living by parasitizing mycorrhizal fungi in the soil. It obtains all of its needs in this way. As such, it produces no leaves, no chlorophyll, and really nothing that would readily identify it outright as a plant. All one would ever see of this species are its bizarre flowers that look more like a sea anemone than anything botanical. Like most mycoheterotrophs, when not in flower it lives a subterranean lifestyle.

The original drawing of  Thismia neptunis  (from Beccari 1878).

The original drawing of Thismia neptunis (from Beccari 1878).

This is why finding them can be so difficult. Even when you know where they are supposed to grow, infrequent flowering events can make assessing population numbers extremely difficult. Add to this the fact that Thismia neptunis is only known from a small region of Borneo near Sarawak where it grows in the dense understory of hyperdiverse Dipterocarp forests. It was first found and described back in 1866 but was not seen again for 151 years. To be honest, it is hard to say whether or not most folks were actively searching.

Regardless, after a 151 year absence, a team of botanists recently rediscovered this wonderful little parasite flowering not too far from where it was originally described. Though more study will be needed to flesh out the ecology of this tiny parasitic plant, the team was fortunate enough to witness a few tiny flies flitting around within the flower tube. It could very well be that these odd flowers are pollinated by tiny flies that frequent these shaded forest understories.

As exciting as this rediscovery is, it nonetheless underscores the importance of forest conservation. The fact that no one had seen this plant in over a century speaks volumes about how little we understand the diversity of such biodiverse regions. The rate at which such forests are being cleared means that we are undoubtedly losing countless species that we don't even know exist. Forest conservation is a must. 

Click here to support forest conservation efforts in Borneo. 

Photo Credit and Further Reading: [1]

How a Giant Parasitic Orchid Makes a Living

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Imagine a giant vine with no leaves and no chlorophyll scrambling over decaying wood and branches of a warm tropical forest. As remarkable as that may seem, that is exactly what Erythrorchis altissima is. With stems that can grow to upwards of 10 meters in length, this bizarre orchid from tropical Asia is the largest mycoheterotrophic plant known to science.

Mycoheterotrophs are plants that obtain all of their energy needs by parasitizing fungi. As you can probably imagine, this is an extremely indirect way for a plant to make a living. In most instances, this means the parasitic plants are stealing nutrients from the fungi that were obtained via a partnership with photosynthetic plants in the area. In other words, mycoheterotrophic plants are indirectly stealing from photosynthetic plants.

In the case of E. altissima, this begs the question of where does all of the carbon needed to build a surprising amount of plant come from? Is it parasitizing the mycorrhizal network associated with its photosynthetic neighbors or is it up to something else? These are exactly the sorts of questions a team from Saga University in Japan wanted to answer.

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All orchids require fungal partners for germination and survival. That is one of the main reasons why orchids can be so finicky about where they will grow. Without the fungi, especially in the early years of growth, you simply don't have orchids. The first step in figuring out how this massive parasitic orchid makes its living was to identify what types of fungi it partners with. To do this, the team took root samples and isolated the fungi living within.

By looking at their DNA, the team was able to identify 37 unique fungal taxa associated with this species. Most surprising was that a majority of those fungi were not considered mycorrhizal (though at least one mycorrhizal species was identified). Instead, the vast majority of the fungi associated with with this orchid are involved in wood decay.

Stems climbing on fallen dead wood (a) or on standing living trees (b). A thick and densely branched root clump (c) and thin and elongate roots (d) [Source]

Stems climbing on fallen dead wood (a) or on standing living trees (b). A thick and densely branched root clump (c) and thin and elongate roots (d) [Source]

To ensure that these wood decay fungi weren't simply partnering with adult plants, the team decided to test whether or not the wood decay fungi were able to induce germination of E. altissima seeds. In vitro germination trials revealed that not only do these fungi induce seed germination in this orchid, they also fuel the early growth stages of the plant. Further tests also revealed that all of the carbon and nitrogen needs of E. altissima are met by these wood decay fungi.

These results are amazing. It shows that the largest mycoheterotrophic plant we know of lives entirely off of a generalized group of fungi responsible for the breakdown of wood. By parasitizing these fungi, the orchid has gained access to one of the largest pools of carbon (and other nutrients) without having to give anything back in return. It is no wonder then that this orchid is able to reach such epic proportions without having to do any photosynthesizing of its own. What an incredible world we live in!

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Photo Credits: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1]

Meet The Ghostworts

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I love parasitic plants and I love liverworts. Imagine my excitement then when I learned that there are at least two species of parasitic liverworts! These bizarre little plants are currently the only parasitic non-vascular plants known to science. 

The first description of a ghostwort dates back to 1919. Although no description of habitat was given, the account describes a set of liverwort thalli containing no chlorophyll and whose cells were full of mycorrhizal fungi. They were assigned to the genus Aneura and that was that. Further descriptions of this plant would not be made for more than a decade.

A ghostwort gametophyte with spike-like sporophytes.

A ghostwort gametophyte with spike-like sporophytes.

Proper attention was not given to this group until the 1930's. More plants started turning up among the humus and mosses of forests and wetlands throughout Finland, Sweden, and Scotland. A more thorough workover of specimens was made and the plants were moved into their own genus, Cryptothallus, which accurately captured their subterranean habit. They were given the name Cryptothallus mirabilis.

Another species of Cryptothallus was discovered in Costa Rica in 1977. It was named Cryptothallus hirsutus. Only one other collection of these species was made and it remains the lesser known of the two species. It is interesting to note the disparity between their ranges, with C. mirabilis inhabiting northern portions of Europe, and C. hirsutus only known from those two collections in Central America. Regardless, these odd liverworts have received a bit more attention in recent years.

It seems that the ghostworts manage to capture the attention of anyone who looks hard enough. For instance, a handful of attempts have been made to cultivate ghostworts in a controlled lab setting. Originally, plants were grown exposed to varying levels of light but try as the may, researchers were never able to coax the plants into producing chlorophyll. It would appear that these tiny liverworts are in fact some sort of parasite.

Spike-like sporophytes with a branching gametophyte. 

Spike-like sporophytes with a branching gametophyte. 

Proper evidence of their parasitic lifestyle was finally demonstrated 2003. Researchers were able to grow C. mirabilis in specialized observation chambers in order to understand what is going on under the soil. As it turns out, those numerous mycorrhizal connections mentioned in the original description are the key to survival for the ghostworts. The team showed that the ghostwort tricks fungi in the genus Tulasnella into forming mycorrhizal connections with its cells. These fungi also happen to be hooked up to a vast network of pine and birch tree roots.

By tricking the fungi, into an association, the ghostworts are able to steal carbohydrates that the fungi gain from the surrounding trees. Like all mycoheterotrophs, the ghostworts are essentially indirect parasites of photosynthetic plants. Their small size and relative rarity on the landscape likely helps these plants go unnoticed by the fungi but much more work needs to be done to better understand such dynamics.

Ghostworts look more like fungi than plants.

Ghostworts look more like fungi than plants.

In 2008, phylogenetic attention was paid to the ghostworts in order to better understand where they fit on the liverwort branch of the tree. As it turns out, Cryptothallus appears to be nestled quite comfortably within the genus Aneura. Because of this, the authors suggest disposing of the genus Cryptothallus altogether. Outside of simply placing this species back in its originally described genus, it affiliation with Aneura is quite interesting from an evolutionary standpoint.

Other liverworts in the genus Aneura are also known to form mycorrhizal relationships with Tulasnella. Unlike the ghostworts, however, these liverworts are fully capable of photosynthesis. Because these intimate fungal relationships were already in place before the ghostworts began evolving towards a fully parasitic lifestyle, it suggests that the saprophytic nature of Tulasnella fungi may have actually facilitated this jump. 

The cryptic nature of the ghostworts has left many a botanist wanting. Their subterranean habit makes them incredibly hard to find. Who knows what secrets this group still holds. Future discoveries could very well add more species to the mix or, at the very least, greatly expand the known range of the other two.

Photo Credits: Brian Eversham [1] [2] [3] [4]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3]

 

On the Ecology of Krameria

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There is something satisfying about saying "Krameria." Whereas so many scientific names act as tongue twisters, Krameria rolls of the tongue with a satisfying confidence. What's more, the 18 or so species within this genus are fascinating plants whose lifestyles are as exciting as their overall appearance. Today I would like to give you an overview of these unique parasitic plants.

Commonly known as rhatany, these plants belong to the family Krameriaceae. This is a monotypic clade, containing only the genus Krameria. Historically there has been a bit of confusion as to where these plants fit on the tree of life. Throughout the years, Krameria has been placed in families like Fabaceae and Polygalaceae, however, more recent genetic work suggests it to be unique enough to warrant a family status of its own. 

Regardless of its taxonomic affiliation, Krameria is a wonderfully specialized genus of plants with plenty of offer the biologically curious among us. All 18 species are shrubby, though at least a couple species can sometimes barely qualify as such. They are a New World taxon with species growing native as far south as Paraguay and Chile and as far north as Kansas and Colorado. They generally inhabit dry habitats.

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As I briefly mentioned above, most if not all of the 18 species are parasitic in nature. They are what we call "hemiparasites" in that despite stealing from their hosts, they are nonetheless fully capable of photosynthesis. It is interesting to note that no one has yet been able to raise these plants in captivity without a host. It would seem that despite being able to photosynthesize, these plants are rather specialized parasites. 

That is not to say that they have evolved to live off of a specific host. Far from it actually. A wide array of potential hosts, ranging from annuals to perennials, have been identified. What I find most remarkable about their parasitic lifestyle is the undeniable advantage it gives these shrubs in hot, dry environments. Research has found that despite getting a slow start on growing in spring, the various Krameria species are capable of performing photosynthesis during extremely stressful periods and for a much longer duration than the surrounding vegetation. 

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The reason for this has everything to do with their parasitic lifestyle. Instead of producing a long taproot to reach water reserves deep in the soil, these shrubs invest in a dense layer of lateral roots that spread out in the uppermost layers of soil seeking unsuspecting hosts. When these roots find a plant worth parasitizing, they grow around its roots and begin taking up water and nutrients from them. By doing this, Krameria are no longer limited by what water or other resources their roots can find. Instead, they have managed to tap into large reserves that would otherwise be locked away inside the tissues of their neighbors. As such, the Krameria do not have to worry about water stress in the same way that non-parasitic plants do. 

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By far the most stunning feature of the genus Krameria are the flowers. Looking at them it is no wonder why they have been associated with legumes and milkworts. They are beautiful and complex structures with a rather specific pollination syndrome. Krameria flowers produce no nectar to speak of. Instead, they have evolved alongside a group of oil-collecting bees in the genus Centris.

One distinguishing feature of Krameria flowers are a pair of waxy glands situated on each side of the ovary. These glands produce oils that female Centris bees require for reproduction. Though Centris bees are not specialized on Krameria flowers, they nonetheless visit them in high numbers. Females alight on the lip and begin scraping off oils from the glands. As they do this, they inevitably come into contact with the stamens and pistil. The female bees don't feed on these oils. Instead, they combine it with pollen and nectar from other plant species into nutrient-rich food packets that they feed to their developing larvae.  

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Following fertilization, seeds mature inside of spiny capsules. These capsules vary quite a bit in form and are quite useful in species identification. Each spine is usually tipped in backward-facing barbs, making them excellent hitchhikers on the fur and feathers of any animal that comes into contact with them.  

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4]

Cockroaches & Unexpected Partnerships

Say "cockroach" and most people will start to squirm. These indefatigable insects are maligned the world over because of a handful of species that have settled in quite nicely among human habitats. The world of cockroaches is far more diverse than most even care to realize, and where they occur naturally, these insects provide important ecological services. For instance, over the last decade or so, researchers have added pollination and seed dispersal to the list of cockroach activities. 

That's right, pollination and seed dispersal. It may seem odd to think of roaches partaking in such interactions but a study published in 2008 provides some of the first evidence that roaches are doing more with plants than eating their decaying tissues. After describing a new species of Clusia in French Guiana, researchers set out to investigate what, if anything, was pollinating it. The plant was named Clusia sellowiana and its flowers emitted a strange scent. 

Cockroach pollinating  C. sellowiana

Cockroach pollinating C. sellowiana

The source of this scent was the chemical acetoin. It seemed to be a rather attractive scent as a small variety of insects were observed visiting the flowers. However, only one insect seemed to be performing the bulk of pollination services for this new species - a small cockroach called Amazonia platystylata. It turns out that the roaches are particularly sensitive to acetoin and although they don't have any specific anatomical features for transferring pollen, their rough exoskeleton nonetheless picks up and deposits ample amounts of the stuff. 

It would appear that C. sellowiana has entered into a rather specific relationship with this species of cockroach. Although this is only the second documentation of roach pollination, it certainly suggests that more attention is needed. This Clusia isn't alone in its interactions with cockroaches either. As I hinted above, roaches can now be added to the list of seed dispersers of a small parasitic plant native to Japan. 

 (A) M. humile fruit showing many minute seeds embedded in the less juicy pulp. (B) Fallen fruits. (C) Blattella nipponica feeding on the fruit. (D) Cockroach poop with seeds. (E) Stained cockroach-ingested seeds

Monotropastrum humile looks a lot like Monotropa found growing in North America. Indeed, these plants are close cousins, united under the family Ericaceae. Interestingly enough, it was only recently found that camel crickets are playing an important role in the seed dispersal of this species. However, it looks like they aren't the only game in town. Researchers have also found that a forest dwelling cockroach called Blattella nipponica serves as a seed disperser as well. 

The roaches were observed feeding on the fruits of this parasitic plant, consuming pulp and seed alike. What's more, careful observation of their poop revealed that seeds of M. humile passed through the digestive tract unharmed. Cockroaches can travel great distances and therefore may provide an important service in distributing the seeds of a rather obscure parasitic plant. To think that this is an isolated case seems a bit naive. It seems to me like we should pay a little more attention to what cockroaches are doing in forests around the world. 

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3]

Further Reading: [1] [2]

Are Crickets Dispersing Seeds of Parasitic Plants?

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Parasitic plants lead a rather unique lifestyle. Many have foregone photosynthesis entirely by living off fungi or their photosynthetic neighbors. Indeed, there are many anatomical and physiological adaptations that are associated with making a living parasitically. Whether they are full parasites or only partial, one thing that many parasitic plants have in common are tiny, dust-like seeds. Their reduced size and thin seed coats are generally associated with wind dispersal, however, there are always exceptions to the rule. Recent evidence has demonstrated that a handful of parasitic plants have evolved in response to a rather unique seed dispersal agent - camel crickets.

A research team based out of Japan recently published a paper describing a rather intriguing seed dispersal situation involving three species of parasitic plants (Yoania amagiensis - Orchidaceae, Monotropastrum humile - Ericaceae, and Phacellanthus tubiflorus - Orobanchaceae). These are all small, achlorophyllous herbs that either parasitize trees directly through their roots or they parasitize the mycorrhizal fungi associated with said trees. What's more, each of these species are largely inhabitants of the dense, shaded understory of rich forests.

These sorts of habitats don't lend well to wind dispersal. The closed forest canopy and dense understory really limits wind flow. It would appear that these three plant species have found away around this issue. Each of these plants invest in surprisingly fleshy fruits for their parasitic lifestyle. Also, their seeds aren't as dusk-like as many of their relatives. They are actually quite fleshy. This is odd considering the thin margins many parasitic plants live on. Any sort of investment in costly tissues must have considerable benefits for the plants if they are to successfully get their genes into the next generation.

Fleshy fruits like this are usually associated with a form of animal dispersal called endozoochory. Anyone that has ever found seed-laden bird poop understands how this process works. Still, simply getting an animal to eat your seeds isn't necesarly enough for successful dispersal. Seeds must survive their trip through the gut and come out the other end relatively in tact for the process to work. That is where a bit of close observation came into play.

After hours of observation, the team found that the usual frugivorous suspects such as birds and small mammals showed little to no interest in the fruits of these parasites. Beetles were observed munching on the fruits a bit but the real attention was given by a group of stumpy-looking nocturnal insects collectively referred to as camel crickets. Again, eating the fruits is but one step in the process of successful seed dispersal. The real question was whether or not the seeds of these parasites survived their time inside either of these insect groups. To answer this question, the team employed feeding trials.

They compared seed viability by offering up fruits to beetles and crickets both in the field and back in the lab. Whereas both groups of insects readily consumed the fruits and seeds, only the crickets appeared to offer the greatest chances of a seed surviving the process. Beetles never pooped out viable seeds. The strong mandibles of the beetles fatally damaged the seeds. This was not the case for the camel crickets. Instead, these nocturnal insects frequently pooped out tens to hundreds of healthy, viable seeds. Considering the distances the crickets can travel as well as their propensity for enjoying similar habitats as the plants, this stacks up to potentially be quite a beneficial interaction. 

The authors are sure to note that these results do not suggest that camel crickets are the sole seed dispersal agents for these plants. Still, the fact that they are effective at moving large amounts of seeds is tantalizing to say the least. Taken together with other evidence such as the fact that the fruits of these plants often give off a fermented odor, which is known to attract camel crickets, the fleshy nature of their fruits and seeds, and the fact that these plants present ripe seed capsules at or near the soil surface suggests that crickets (and potentially other insects) may very well be important factors in the reproductive ecology of these plants.

Coupled with previous evidence of cricket seed dispersal, it would appear that this sort of relationship between plants and crickets is more widespread than we ever imagined. It is interesting to note that relatives of both the plants in this study and the camel crickets occur in both temperate and tropical habitats around the globe. We very well could be overlooking a considerable component of seed dispersal ecology via crickets. Certainly more work is needed.

Photo Credits: [1]

Further Reading: [1] [2]

Broomrape: What's in a Name?

One can turn a lot of heads by speaking publicly of the plants in the family Orobanchaceae. This interesting and often beautiful parasitic plant family is collectively referred to as the broomrape family. Species with common names like “naked broomrape” and “spiked broomrape” can really make a casual plant conversation turn sour in no time.

Despite how heinous the name sounds, its origin is a bit more innocent. I have really grown to appreciate etymology. Learning the hidden meaning behind the words we utilize for taxonomy can be a lot of fun. It can also teach you a little bit more about the species itself. 

In this context, rape stems from the Latin word “rapum,” which roughly translates to “tuber” or “turnip.” Broom is an English word that, in this context, refers to a shrubby plant related to vetch, which is often parasitized by broomrapes. So, the literal meaning of broomrape is something akin to “broom tuber.” In other words, they are plants growing on the roots of vetch. So, yea, the more you know…

Further Reading: [1]

Nicholas Turland

Nicholas Turland

A Peculiar Parasite at Berkeley

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Parasitic plants are fascinating. I never pass up an opportunity to meet them. On a recent trip to California, my host for the day mentioned that something funny was growing in a patch of ivy on the Berkeley Campus. I had to know what it was. We took a detour from our intended rout and there, growing underneath a pine tree in a dense patch of ivy were these odd purple and brown stalks. This was definitely a parasitic plant.

The plant in question was the ivy broomrape (Orobanche hederae). As both its common and scientific name suggests, it is a parasite on ivy (Hedera spp.). As you can probably guess based on the identity of its host, ivy broomrape is not native to North America. In fact, the population we were looking at is the only known population of this plant you will find in the Americas. How it came to be in that specific location is a bit of a mystery but the proximity to the life sciences building suggests that this introduction might have been intentional. Personally I am quite alright with this introduction as it is parasitizing one of the nastier invasive species on this continent.

The ivy broomrape starts its life as a tiny seed. Upon germination, the tiny embryo sends out a thin thread-like filament that spirals out away from the embryo into the surrounding soils. The filament is looking for the roots of its host. Upon contact with ivy roots, the filament penetrates xylem tissues. The ivy broomrape is now plugged in, receiving all of its water, nutrient, and carbohydrate needs from the ivy. At this point the embryo begins to grow larger, throwing out more and more parasitic roots in the process. These locate more and more ivy roots until the needs of the ivy broomrape are met. Of course, all of this is going on underground.

Only when the ivy broomrape has garnered enough energy to flower will you see this plant. A stalk full of purple tinged, tubular flowers emerges from the ground. At this point its membership in the family Orobanchaceae is readily apparent. Like all members of this family, its parasitic lifestyle is so complete that it is beginning to lose genes for the production of chlorophyll and Rubisco, all things we generally associate with plants. This is why I love parasites so much. Not only are their ecological impacts bewilderingly complex, their evolutionary histories are such a departure from the norm. I will never tire of appreciating such species and I am happy to have met yet another awesome member of this group.

Further Reading:
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1469-8137.1925.tb06671.x/pdf

http://cat.inist.fr/?aModele=afficheN&cpsidt=4107447

Meet Virginia Pennywort

Meet the pennywort gentian (Obolaria virginica). It is a plant of the southeast with its most northerly distribution being around Pennsylvania. I am a little obsessed with gentians so finding this plant is always a special treat. My first encounter left me a bit perplexed by its overall appearance, which is very compact. The leaves and flowers all seemed to be mashed together, competing for space. 

Its small stature and dark coloration cause it to blend in surprisingly well with the forest floor. You often don't see it until you are right on top of one. Something seems to be working well for the Virginia pennywort because once you find one, you usually find many more. Oddly enough, I most frequently see this species in its highest abundance on the side of well-trafficked trails. Add to that its highly reduced leaf area and you have a few traits that usually get me thinking about parasitic plants. Anecdotally speaking, I often find parasitic plants growing near foot traffic. If I had to guess, I would say that it has something to do with root damage, however, I have no data to support such claims. That being said, the literature suggests I wasn't wrong in my suspicions.  

The roots of the Virginia pennywort are described as "coralloid", meaning they take on a structure reminiscent of some corals. This is usually a trait exhibited by species whose roots are closely associated with microbes such as cyanobacteria or certain fungi. Indeed, the roots of the Virginia pennywort are often infested with arbuscular mycorrhizae. Additionally, there is some molecular evidence to suggest that this species is at least partially mycoheterotrophic, meaning it gets some at least some of its nutrients parasitically from said mycorrhizal fungi. Isotope analysis demonstrated that the tissues of the Virginia pennywort were more enriched with isotopes of nitrogen than the surrounding vegetation.

It is a really neat plant to find. If you do, make sure to take some time with it and get down on its level for a closer look. You won't be disappointed!

Further Reading:
http://www.amjbot.org/content/97/8/1272.short

http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=obvi

Newly Discovered Orchid Doesn't Bother With Photosynthesis or Opening Its Flowers

A new species of orchid has been discovered on the small Japanese island of Kuroshima. Though not readily recognized as an orchid, it nonetheless resides in the tribe Epidendroideae. Although the flowers of its cousins are often quite showy, this orchid produces small brown blooms that never open. What's more, it has evolved a completely parasitic lifestyle. 

The discovery of this species is quite exciting. The flora of Japan has long thought to be well picked over by botanists and ecologists alike. Finding something new is a special event. The discovery was made by Suetsugu Kenji, associate professor at the Kobe University Graduate School of Science. This discovery was made about a year after a previous parasitic plant discovery made on another Japanese island a mere stones throw from Kuroshima (http://bit.ly/2dYN12L).

Coined Gastrodia kuroshimensis, this interesting little parasite flies in the face of what we generally think of when we think of orchids. It is small, drab, and lives out its entire life on the shaded forest floor. Like the rest of its genus, G. kuroshimensis is mycoheterotrophic. It produces no leaves or chlorophyll, living its entire life as a parasite on mycorrhizal fungi underground. This is not necessarily bizarre behavior for orchids (and plants in general). Many different species have adopted this strategy. What was surprising about its discovery is the fact that its flowers never seem to open. 

In botany this is called "cleistogamy." It is largely believed that cleistogamy evolved as both an energy saving and survival strategy. Instead of dumping lots of energy into producing large, showy flowers to attract pollinators, that energy can instead be used for seed production and persistence. Additionally, since the flowers never open, cross pollination cannot occur. The resulting offspring share 100% of their genes with the parent plant. Although this can be seen as a disadvantage, it can also be an advantage when conditions are tough. If the parent plant is adapted to the specific conditions in which it grows, giving 100% of its genes to its offspring means that they too will be wonderfully adapted to the conditions they are born into. 

As you can probably imagine, pure cleistogamy can be quite risky if conditions rapidly change. In the face of continued human pressures and rapid climate change, cleistogamy as a strategy might not be so good. That is one reason why the discovery of this bizarre little orchid is so interesting. Whereas most species that produce cleistogamous flowers also produce "normal" flowesr that open, this species seems to have given up that ability. Thus, G. kuroshimensis offers researchers a window into how and why this reproductive strategy evolved. 

Photo Credit: Suetsugu Kenji

Further Reading:

[1]

The Largest Single Flower in the World

To find some of the largest flowers in the world, one must find themselves hiking through the the humid jungles of southeast Asia. From there you must be lucky enough to stumble across the flowers of a genus known scientifically as Rafflesia. It contains roughly 28 species spattered about various tropical islands. If you are very lucky, you might even find Rafflesia arnoldii. Producing flowers that are over 3 feet (1 m) in diameter and weighing as much as 24 pounds (11 kg), it produces the largest individual flower on the planet. 

Even more bizarre, these plants are entirely parasitic. They belong to a specialized group called holoparasites. These plants produce no stems, no leaves, nor any true roots. Their entire existence depends on a group of vines related to North America's grapes. Except for flowering, individual Rafflesia exist entirely as a network of mycelium-like cells inside the tissues of their vine hosts.


For a long time, the taxonomic status of this plant was highly debated but recent DNA evidence puts it in the order Malpighiales. From there, things get a little funny. One recent analysis suggested that Rafflesia belonged in the family Euphorbiaceae, however, it most likely warrants its own family - Rafflesiaceae.

So, why produce such large flowers? Well, existing solely within a vine makes it hard to establish a large population in any given area. This makes for a difficult situation in the pollinator department. Somehow plants must increase the odds that any given pollinator will visit multiple unrelated individuals of that particular species. By growing very large and and producing a lot of "stink" (this plant is also referred to as the corpse plant), Rafflesia make sure that pollinators will come from far and wide to investigate, thus increasing their chances of cross pollinating. How this plant goes about seed dispersal, however, remains a mystery.

Most interesting of all, it has been discovered that there is some amount of horizontal gene transfer going on between Rafflesia and its host. Basically, Rafflesia obtains strands of DNA from the vine and uses them in its own genetic code. It is believed this incurs some fitness benefit to Rafflesia but more research is needed to figure out why this may be happening. 

Sadly, many species within this family may be lost before we ever get a chance to get to know them. Forests throughout this region are disappearing rapidly to make room for expanding populations and agriculture. What makes matters worse for Rafflesia is that their lifestyle makes them very hard to study. It is especially difficult to obtain accurate population estimates. As more and more forests are cleared, we could be losing countless populations of these wonderful and intriguing plants. As with large mammals, it would seem that the world's largest flower is falling victim to the unending tide of human development. 

Photo Credit: Tamara van Molken


Further Reading:

http://bit.ly/2c2ALHl

http://bit.ly/2cPMP51

http://bit.ly/2cwP7ny

The World's Only Parasitic Gymnosperm

When we talk about parasitic plants, 99.9% of the time we are talking about angiosperms. However, deep in the mysterious forests of New Caledonia grows the single exception to the rule. Parasitaxus usta is the only parasitic gymnosperm known to exist. The sole member of its genus, P. usta is as strange and beautiful as it is mysterious.

P. usta hails from a strange family of gymnosperms known scientifically as Podocarpaceae. Its purple coloration is absolutely stunning and is the result of high concentrations of anthocyanin pigments in the vacuoles of its cells. Although this strange gymnosperm does in fact produce chloroplasts, they are quite small and the electron transport mechanisms that make photosynthesis possible no longer function.

The true nature of its parasitic lifestyle has remained quite a mystery over the last few decades. A handful of investigations have shown it to be rather unlike any other type of parasitic plant currently known. One of the most bizarre aspects of its morphology is that P. usta does not form any roots. This provided botanists the first clues that it may be a parasite. Further investigation has suggested that, similar to parasitic ericads and orchids, P. usta utilized a fungal intermediary to parasitize the roots of its only known host, another member of the Podocarpaceae family, Falcatifolium taxoides.

Transfer of carbohydrates has been shown to occur through this fungal connection, however, P. usta also seems to obtain nitrogen and water via a direct connection to its host's xylem tissues. In this way it is similar to some mistletoes. As such, it not only can maintain a very high rate of stomatal conductance and a very low water potential, it can also produce cone crops year round. To the best of my knowledge, no other parasitic plant on Earth adopts such a strange combination of strategies.

Despite its unique status, much of the ecology of P. usta remains a complete mystery. For instance, despite being a root parasite, stems of P. usta have been found sprouting from its host tree over 3 feet above the ground. This suggests that P. usta may actually be a strange type of holoparasite. Also, it is entirely unknown how this parasitic gymnosperm becomes established on its host. To date no seed dispersal mechanisms have been described, nor are the seeds sticky. Perhaps its all a matter of chance, which would explain why so few individuals have been found. At the end of the day, the fact that it occurs on a remote island in very few locations means that this bizarrely unique gymnosperm will hold on to its mysteries for many years to come.

Photo Credit: [1] [2]

Further Reading:

http://www.conifers.org/po/Parasitaxus.php

http://bit.ly/2cBUwvj

On the Wood Rose and its Bats

New Zealand has some weird nature. It is amazing to see what an island free of any major terrestrial predators can produce. Unfortunately, ever since humans found their way to this unique island, the ecology has suffered. One of the most unique plant and animal interactions in the world can be found on this archipelago but for how much longer is the question.

The story starts with a species of bat. In fact, this bat is New Zealand's only native terrestrial mammal. That's right, I said terrestrial. The New Zealand lesser short-tailed bat spends roughly 40% of its time foraging for insects on the ground. It has lots of specialized adaptations that I won't go into here but the cool part is they forage in packs, stirring up insects from the leaf litter until they reach a level of feeding frenzy that I thought was only reserved for sharks or piranhas. Along with using echo location, they also have a highly developed sense of smell. This is important for our second player in this forest floor drama.

Enter Dactylanthus taylorii, the wood rose. This plant is not a rose at all but rather a member of the tropical family Balanophoraceae. More importantly, it is parasitic. It produces no chlorophyll and lives most of its life wrapped around the roots of its host tree underground. Every once in a while a small patch of flowers break through the dirt and just barely peak above the leaf litter. This give this species it's Māori name of "pua o te reinga" or "pua reinga", which translates to "flower of the underworld." The flowers emit a musky, sweet smell that attracts these ground foraging bats. The bats are one of the only pollinators left on the island. They sniff out the flowers and dine on the nectar, all the while being dusted with pollen. Recently, it has been found that New Zealand's giant ground parrot, the kakapo, is also believed to have been a pollinator of this plant. Sadly, today the kakapo exists solely on one small island of the New Zealand archipelago.

Both the wood rose and the New Zealand lesser short-tailed bat are considered at risk for extinction. When modern man came to these islands they brought with them the general suite of mammalian invasives like rats, mongoose, cats, and pigs, which are exacting a major toll on the local ecology. The plants and animals native to New Zealand have not shared an evolutionary history with such aggressive mammalian invaders and thus have no adaptations for coping with their sudden presence. The future of the wood rose, the New Zealand lesser short-tailed bat, and the kakapo, along with many other uniquely New Zealand species are for now uncertain.

Photo Credits: Joseph Dalton Hooker (1859) and Nga Manu Nature Reserve (http://www.ngamanu.co.nz/)

Further Reading:

http://bit.ly/2bBw8FT

http://bit.ly/2bKRY90

http://bit.ly/2bKpxfE

Buffalonut - A Parasitic Shrub From Appalachia

I have a hard time with shrubby species. They just don't stand out to me like herbaceous plants or giant trees. As such, my identification skills for this group of medium-sized woody plants are subpar. However, every once in a while I find something that I can't let go. Usually its a species with a trait that really stands out. This is how I came to know buffalo nut (Pyrularia pubera). Its unique inflorescence was like nothing I had ever encountered before. 

There is good reason for my unfamiliarity with this species. It is largely restricted to the core of the Appalachian Mountains, although there are records of it growing on Long Island as well. Regardless, it is not a species I grew up around. The first time I saw its flowers I was stumped. I simply couldn't place it. Luckily its unique appearance made it easy to track down. I was happy with buffalo nut for the time being but I was surprised yet again when I sat down for a chat with someone who knows woody species much better than I do. 

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As it turns out, buffalo nut belongs to the sandalwood family, Santalaceae. This makes it a distant cousin of the mistletoes. Like most members of this family, buffalo nut lives a parasitic lifestyle. Although it is fully capable of photosynthesis and "normal" root behavior, under natural conditions, it parasitizes the roots of other tree species. It doesn't really seem to have a preference either. Over 60 different species hailing from 31 different families have been recorded as hosts. 

When a buffalo nut seed germinates, it starts by throwing down a taproot. Once the taproot reaches a certain depth, lateral roots are sent out in search of a host. These roots "sniff out" the roots of other species by honing in on root exudates. When a suitable root is found, the buffalo nut root will tap into its host using specialized cells called haustoria. Once connected, it begins stealing water and nutrients. Buffalo nut roots have been known to travel distances of 40 feet in search of a host, which is pretty incredible if you ask me. 

It is easy to look down on parasites. Heck, they are largely maligned as free loaders. This could not be farther from the truth. Parasites are a healthy component of every ecosystem on the planet. They are a yet another player in a system that is constantly changing. What's more, the presence of parasites can actually increase biodiversity in a system by keeping certain species from becoming too dominant. Buffalo nut should not be persecuted. Instead it should be celebrated. It is yet another species that makes the Appalachian Mountain flora so unique. 


Further Reading: [1] [2]