- Author: Kathy Keatley Garvey
Take the nectar of the sticky monkeyflower, Mimulus auranticus.
UC Davis community ecologist Rachel Vannette and colleague Tadashi Fukami of Stanford University decided to examine microbial communities inhabiting the nectar of the sticky monkeyflower at the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve in California's Santa Cruz Mountains.
Their paper, "Dispersal Enchances Beta Diversity in Nectar Microbes," published in Ecology Letters, revealed that contrary to popular assumption, “increased dispersal among habitats can actually increase biodiversity rather than decrease it."
The flower, in the family Phrymacease, is a native shrub common in chaparral and coastal scrub habitats of California and Oregon. It is primarily pollinated by Anna's hummingbird. Other common pollinators include bumble bees, carpenter bees, and thrips.
Dispersal is considered a key driver of beta diversity, which is “the variation in species composition among local communities,” Vannette said.
They are the first to publish work showing that increased dispersal can increase biodiversity.
In their experiment, they reduced natural rates of dispersal by eliminating multiple modes of microbial dispersal. “Specifically we focused in nectar-inhabiting bacteria and yeasts that are dispersed among flowers by wind, insects and birds,” they said. “We imposed dispersal limitation on individual flowers and quantified microbial abundance, species composition and microbial effects on nectar chemistry.”
The scientists “manipulated dispersal of nectar-inhabiting bacteria and yeasts via flower-visiting animals to examine how dispersal influenced microbial beta diversity among flowers. Our analysis suggested that this unexpected pattern might have resulted from stronger priority effects under increased dispersal.”
This work has direct implications for conservation of many organisms in addition to bacteria and yeast, suggesting that preserving routes of dispersal among habitat patches may be important in the maintenance of biodiversity. In contrast to previous work showing that dispersal can homogenize communities or make them more similar, the published work demonstrates that dispersal can in some cases generate communities that are more different from each other. The authors hypothesize that this could be driven by priority effects, where early arriving species change the species that can establish within that habitat.
Why focus on nectar-inhabiting microbes? Previous work by Vannette and others shows that microbial activity in nectar can alter nectar chemistry and influence plant-pollinator interactions by altering nectar chemistry. In the Ecology Letters study, microbes were also found to change nectar chemistry, explaining ~50% of the variation in sugar composition in the field. This suggests that nectar-inhabiting bacteria and yeast can influence the nectar rewards available to pollinators in a natural setting.
More broadly, “Studying the role of microbes in the environment addresses one of the biggest mysteries in science,” Vannette says. In her current work, she and her lab are investigating how microbial communities form, change, and function in their interactions with insects and plants. They are also researching how microorganisms affect plant defense against herbivores and plant attraction to pollinators.
Vannette, a former postdoctoral fellow at Stanford, joined the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology faculty as an assistant professor in 2015.
Vannette's research was funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation through the Life Sciences Research Fellowship. Stanford also funded the research through grants from the National Science Foundation, the Terman Fellowship, and the Department of Biology at Stanford University.
- Author: Kathy Keatley Garvey
Or more precisely, dead fruit flies or carrion on a tarweed plant can benefit the plant in more ways that most people would ever think about, say researchers in the UC Davis Department of Entomology.
Just as human tourists can be good for the economy, ‘insect tourists” can be good for a plant.
When the hairs of a “sticky plant” trap small insects or “insect tourists,” the “tourist trap” provides food for other predators, thus becoming a defensive mechanism that spares the plant from increased herbivore damage. Other beneficial results include greater plant fitness and increased fruit production.
“We conducted a large, simple field experiment to test the hypothesis that plant-trapped insects could enhance indirect defense by increasing predator densities,” said ecologist Billy Krimmel, a graduate student in the Jay Rosenheim lab, who worked with fellow ecologist Ian Pearse of the Richard Karban lab. Pearse is now a postdoctoral fellow in Walter Koenig’s laboratory at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.
“Sticky plants-- those producing resinous, oily or hooked trichomes (hairs)--often entrap small insects that land on them as they pass by,” Krimmel said. “This insect carrion functions as a type of plant-provided food for defense.”
“This is the first example of such a plant-provided food being captured from the external environment,” Krimmel said. “We coined the term 'tourist trap', referring to the sticky hairs that catch insect passers-by.”
In their research, “Sticky Plant Traps Insects to Enhance Indirect Defence,” published in the journal Ecology Letters, the ecologists revealed that the trapped insect tourists “increased the abundance of a suite of predators, decreased herbivory and increased plant fitness.”
Later the journal Nature focused on the Krimmel-Pearse research in its ecology section: "When Plants Run the Food Chain."
"We believe that carrion may be an overlooked, but generally important component of food webs and plant-herbivore interactions,” said Pearse, noting that “most studies ignore insects after they die, but the presence of their carrion may be an important component of food webs.”
"We have known for a long time that carnivorous plants entrap insects for their own benefit,” Pearse said. “In our current study, we found that the entrapment of insects by plants might be even more important and general than previously thought."
Krimmel and Pearse conducted their research in the Stebbens Cold Canyon Reserve, a UC Davis Nature Reserve located in Solano County, near the outlet of Lake Berryessa. Their sticky plant was tarweed (Madia elegans), an annual flowering California native plant in the family Asteraceae. It generally flowers in mid to late summer, from approximately June through September.
At our study site, tarweed's major herbivore is the specialist caterpillar Heliothodes diminutiva, which feeds largely on plant reproductive organs and can completely sterilise its host plants,” they wrote. The adult owlet moth, Heliothodes diminutive, lays its eggs on the developing buds. The emerging caterpillars can quickly devour all the flowers and buds.
“The suite of predators commonly found on tarweed,” they wrote, “includes the assassin bug Pselliopus spinicollis, two stilt bugs Hoplinus echinatus and Jalysus wickhami, the green lynx spider Peucetia sp. and the crab spider Mecaphesa schlingeri. All can navigate tarweed's sticky surface.”
Krimmel and Pearse chose 82 tarweed plants for their experiment. They placed dead Drosophila fruit flies to half of them, five flies per week through the growing season, and then monitored all the plants throughout the growing season.
“Because tarweed is a small, annual plant, we were able to do full counts of arthropods on all plants each week, and measure lifetime fruit production by the plants, allowing us to relate our experimental treatment to plant lifetime fitness,” the authors wrote.
“The addition of 5 dead fruit flies (carrion) to plants each week over the growing season increased the abundance of all surveyed predatory arthropods associated with M. elegans plants by 76 percent to 450 percent,. For P. spinoicollis, the most abundant predator, this effect was strongest during the early growth season in June and July.”
Specifically, “the addition of carrion (fruit flies) to M. elegans plants produced a 60 percent decrease in bud damage caused by H. diminutiva, the dominant lepidopteran herbivore in this system and increased lifetime fruit production by 10 percent,” the researchers said.
Jay Rosenheim's USDA research grant helped fund the project. Krimmel received two other grants: a National Science Foundation/Graduate Research Fellowship and a Jastro-Shields Research Scholarship.