Why ‘vampire’ plants are good to have around

"R. minor increased the abundance of all sorts of animals including snails, woodlice, butterflies, wasps, and spiders," says Sue Hartley. "This is an important finding for the conservation and management of these chalk grassland communities, which are exceptionally species rich but also rare and threatened." (Credit: Victoria Benstead-Hume/Flickr)

“Vampire” plants that attach onto and derive nutrients from another living plant may benefit the plants and animals in the grassland around them.

By altering the densities of the hemiparasite—a parasitic plant that also photosynthesises—Rhinanthus minor in the Castle Hill National Nature Reserve in Sussex, ecologists were able to assess the impacts of the “vampire” plants on the biodiversity of a species-rich semi-natural grassland.

Rhinanthus minor
Rhinanthus minor. (Credit: S. Rae/Flickr)

The scientists compared the plant and invertebrate communities in areas where R. minor was removed, left at natural densities, or increased in abundance.

The results, published in the journal Ecology, show for the first time the positive effects of a “vampire” plant further up the food chain—not only on other plants, but also on animals feeding on dead plant and animal matter, herbivores, and their predators.

“This was a really unexpected finding. Although hemi-parasites are known to increase the diversity of other plants in the community by suppressing the dominant species they parasitize and so allowing other plants to flourish, none of us predicted there would be such dramatic and positive impacts on other components of the grassland community,” says lead author Professor Sue Hartley of the University of York’s biology department and director of the York Environmental Sustainability Institute.

R. minor increased the abundance of all sorts of animals including snails, woodlice, butterflies, wasps, and spiders. This is an important finding for the conservation and management of these chalk grassland communities, which are exceptionally species rich but also rare and threatened.”

[related]

Co-researcher Libby John, head of the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln says: “Overall, our findings demonstrate that parasitic plants can have dramatic and lasting impacts on abundance, richness, and diversity across multiple trophic levels within semi-natural grassland communities.

“Our study provides a clear demonstration of the importance of indirect interactions as major structuring forces in ecology and the strong cascading effects of these interactions across trophic levels. Our results also illustrate that keystone species such as R. minor can have both negative and positive impacts on other species.”

Understanding the impact of species on community structure is a fundamental question in ecology and there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that both sub-dominant species and parasites can have disproportionately large effects on other organisms.

Source: University of York