Plant-Killing Fungi Found to Preserve Rainforest Diversity
Voracious pests may be foes of individual plants, but they can benefit forests. A study in the humid rainforests of Belize shows that plant-killing fungi can help preserve diversity in such ecosystems.
The study, published today by Nature, provides experimental support for a leading ecological hypothesis on why any given plant species does not take over in species-rich forests. That proposal — the ‘Janzen–Connell hypothesis’ — posits that as the population of a plant species grows, so does the rate at which specialized pests dine on it. Those pests then keep dominant plants in check, giving other species room to flourish.
“The more common a plant is, the more aggressively it is attacked,” says Keith Clay, a plant ecologist at Indiana University in Bloomington, who was not involved with the study. “It’s a mechanism for maintaining diversity.”
Since the Janzen–Connell hypothesis was proposed more than 40 years ago, many research teams have gathered evidence that plant-munching insects and other predators keep populations of plant species in check. But few were able to establish that this mechanism also boosted plant diversity, says Clay.
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