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Parasitic plants indirectly regulate below-ground properties in grassland ecosystems

Research output: Contribution to journalLetter

Published

Journal publication date23/02/2006
JournalNature
Journal number7079
Volume439
Number of pages4
Pages969-972
Original languageEnglish

Abstract

Parasitic plants are one of the most ubiquitous groups of generalist parasites in both natural and managed ecosystems, with over 3,000 known species worldwide1, 2, 3. Although much is known about how parasitic plants influence host peformance1, 2, 3, 4, their role as drivers of community- and ecosystem-level properties remains largely unexplored5. Parasitic plants have the potential to influence directly the productivity and structure of plant communities because they cause harm to particular host plants, indirectly increasing the competitive status of non-host species6, 7, 8, 9, 10. Such parasite-driven above-ground effects might also have important indirect consequences through altering the quantity and quality of resources that enter soil, thereby affecting the activity of decomposer organisms3, 11, 12, 13. Here we show in model grassland communities that the parasitic plant Rhinanthus minor, which occurs widely throughout Europe and North America14, has strong direct effects on above-ground community properties, increasing plant diversity and reducing productivity. We also show that these direct effects of R. minor on the plant community have marked indirect effects on below-ground properties, ultimately increasing rates of nitrogen cycling. Our study provides evidence that parasitic plants act as a major driver of both above-ground and below-ground properties of grassland ecosystems.