Savanna plant survival: hanging out in the right crowd

Tyler Coverdale first visited the Mpala Research Centre in Laikipia, Kenya in 2013, and immediately became painfully aware of the abundant spiny and thorny plants that cover the savanna.  Spines help defend the plants from voracious elephants, giraffes and numerous other herbivores that depend on vegetation for their sustenance.


Camels browsing on  Barleria trispinosa at Mpala Research Centre, Kenya. Credit Tyler Coverdale.

Acacia trees such as Acacia etbaica (left foreground below) dominate the landscape, and may be associated with smaller shrubs, such as Barleria trispinosa. In the photo below, there is one B. trispinosa plant immediately below (on the right side) the acacia tree, and a second B. trispinosa plant to its right, more out in the open.  Coverdale realized that being situated immediately below a spiny acacia tree might be advantageous to B. trispinosa, which could be protected from the ravages of elephants and giraffes by the acacia thorns .

MRC landscape

Credit: Tyler Coverdale.

As you might guess by its name, B. trispinosa is itself a very spiny plant, which should help protect it from browsers.  Nonetheless, it still gets eaten, so Coverdale and his colleagues explored whether being under acacias would reduce how much it, and two other related species, got browsed.

Barleria trispinosa

Barleria trispinosa out in the open. Credit: Tyler Coverdale.

The first study was observational – a survey of the damage three species of Barleria suffered when they were under (associated with) acacia trees vs. unassociated with acacia trees. For each Barleria species, the researchers haphazardly chose 10 stems from eight associated and eight unassociated plants, and measured the proportion of these stems that showed physical evidence of being browsed.  As the figure below shows, browsing was sharply lower for each species when it was associated with an acacia plant.


Percentage of stems damaged by browsers for three Barleria species in relation to whether they were associated or unassociated with an acacia tree.* indicates significant differences between means in all figures.

The understory plant community associated with acacias is much denser than the plant community out in the open, so the researchers wondered whether it was the acacia itself, or the other plants associated with it, that were providing protection. They set up an experiment using focal B. trispinosa plants with four treatments (A) unmanipulated control, (B) overstory removal, (C) overstory + understory removal, (D) a procedural control with overstory + understory removal, with the focal plant enclosed in a metal cage to protect it from predators (see Figure below).


Coverdale and his colleagues ran the experiment for one month.  They discovered that removing overhanging acacia branches sharply increased herbivory, but the additional removal of understory neighbors had little additional effect.  Both the unmanipulated controls and procedural controls were unaffected.


Change in % of stems browsed for (A) unmanipulated control (left bar), (B) overstory removal (second from left bar), (C) overstory + understory removal (second from right bar), (D) a procedural control (right bar).  Different letters above bars indicate significant differences between the mean values.

The researchers then investigated how useful these spines are to unassociated B. trispinosa plants. They set up another experiment with four types of spine treatments: (A) unmanipulated controls, (B) 50% spine removal, (C) 100% spine removal, (D) procedural control with 100% spine removal + enclosure within a predator-proof cage. These cages were vandalized shortly after the experiment was set up, so the researchers chose eight plants from a nearby plot (that had all predators excluded for a different experiment) as their procedural control. They discovered that spines are very useful to protect against predators in unassociated B. trispinosa.


Change in % of stems browsed for (A) unmanipulated control (left bar), (B) 50% spine removal (second from left bar), (C) all spines removed (second from right bar), (D) procedural control (right bar).

If you were a plant living under the protection of an acacia tree, it would make sense for you to reduce your investment in thorns, so you could allocate more resources to growth and reproduction.  Does Barleria do this?


Several lines of evidence indicate that all three Barleria species reduce their investment in spines when associated with an acacia. First, a survey of spine density shows a reduced number of spines for all three species when they were associated with acacia trees (top graph).  Second, the spines that are present are significantly shorter in Barleria species associated with acacia trees (middle graph).  In a final survey, Coverdale and his colleagues cut all of the spines off of associated and unassociated Barleria.  For each plant, the researchers calculated the dry weight of spines and of all the other plant tissue.  For each Barleria species, the defensive investment – the ratio of spines to total mass, was substantially reduced in acacia-associated plants in comparison to unassociated plants (bottom graph).

Lastly, can plants react adaptively to browsing?  In other words, will understory plants produce more thorns if they are browsed?  To explore this question, the researchers used scissors to simulate moderate (25%) or heavy (50%) browsing.  They discovered a significant increase in spines produced by unassociated plants one month after clipping. Ecologists call this an induced defense. This induced defense is strongly suppressed in plants that have lived under the protection of acacia trees – in fact there was no significant response to experimental browsing in acacia-associated B. trispinosa plants. The researchers don’t know how long this suppression of induced responses persists. Would browsing induce increased spine growth in B. trispinosa six months, a year or two years after its protective acacia tree died?

Coverdale and his colleagues conclude that the overall benefit of association is positive to the plant populations.  Their studies show better survival and higher reproductive rates of acacia-associated understory plants. There is probably a cost associated with too many offspring competing for resources within a small area, as seedlings tend to grow within 1 meter of their parents.  However the reduction in defense costs probably overrides this cost of competition, leading to increased population size.  The researchers suggest a long-term study of population growth rates for acacia-associated and unassociated plants for several different species to see how general these effects are, and to explore whether other factors, such as soil moisture and nutrient levels influence the allocation and induction of defensive structures such as spines and thorns.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Coverdale, T. C., Goheen, J. R., Palmer, T. M. and Pringle, R. M. (2018), Good neighbors make good defenses: associational refuges reduce defense investment in African savanna plants. Ecology, 99: 1724-1736. doi:10.1002/ecy.2397. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2018 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Intertidal tussles: a shifting balance

As an omnivore with a research-oriented palate, I delight in consuming many different food types.  High on my list are crustaceans – in particular the American lobster, Homarus americanus.


A juvenile American lobster, Homarus americanus. Credit: C. Baillie.

However, another crustacean, the invasive Asian shore crab, Hemigrapsus sanguineus, threatens to disrupt my epicurean delight, by interfering with the growth and development of juvenile lobsters in the low intertidal zone in the north Atlantic. Christopher Baillie and Jonathan Grabowski have explored interactions between these lobsters and crabs to unravel how they might be influencing each other.


The invasive Asian shore crab, Hemigrapsus sanguineus. Credit: Rhode Island Marine and Estuarine Invasive Species Site.

The Asian shore crab was first detected off the New Jersey coast in 1988 and quickly spread from North Carolina to Maine. Their increase has coincided with a sharp decrease in the abundance of their rival green crabs over the same range. Baillie and Grabowski were concerned that the Asian shore crab could also be adversely affecting lobster populations. They did monthly surveys (May-October) of both lobster and crab densities in Dorothy Cove in Masachusetts, USA, between 2013 and 2017, and discovered that crab populations were increasing sharply at the same time that lobster populations were decreasing steadily.


Annual average densities of Asian shore crabs (dark gray) and American lobsters (light gray) from surveys at Dorothy Cove, Nahant, Massachusetts, USA, between 2013 and 2017. Error bars are 1 standard error.

The researchers wanted to know whether the increased number of Asian shore crabs was responsible for the lobster decline. Perhaps the two species competed with each other for shelter. Baillie and Grabowski set up experimental tanks, each containing a wire mesh bottom with a rectangular opening cut in the center, so that a burrow could be excavated.  They then introduced a single lobster or crab to the tank, and allowed it to dig a burrow in the cutout center (we’ll call this individual the resident).


In one shelter experiment, the researchers compared the behavior of larger (mean carapace length = 24.7 cm) and smaller (mean carapace length = 9.3 cm) juvenile lobsters in the presence and absence of a variable number of crabs. They discovered that both larger and smaller lobsters spent most of the time in their burrow when no crabs were in the tank. However, introducing crabs was a major disruptor to their mellow existence, with both lobster size classes being more likely to abandon their residences when crabs were present.


Mean (+ standard error) percentage of time spent in shelter by large juvenile lobsters (top graph) and small juvenile lobsters (bottom graph) in relation to absence (Control) or presence of different numbers of crabs.  Different letters above the bars indicate that the means are statistically different from each other.

The reasons for the decline in residence time were very different for large vs. small lobsters.  In an experiment with one large lobster pitted against one crab, resident lobsters initiated an average of 18.00 attacks against crabs, while resident crabs initiated an average of only 0.20 attacks against lobsters. Even if crabs were allowed to establish residency, when a lobster was introduced, it usually picked a fight with the resident crab. So large resident lobsters left their burrows to challenge intruding crabs. Lobsters managed to kill and eat two intruding crabs.

In contrast, smaller lobsters had a much different experience. Crabs attacked resident small lobsters and were able to displace them from their burrow. This was particularly the case when a greater number of crabs were added to the tank.  When eight crabs were added, the poor lobster was kicked out of its burrow, on average, almost 20 times within a six-hour trial.  Under these conditions, crabs attacked the resident lobster almost 40 times per trial.


Crab behavior towards a resident lobster in relation to the number of crabs (heterospecific competitors) introduced into the tank. (A) Mean number of times the lobster is displaced. (B) Mean number of fights initiated by an intruder crab. Error bars are 1 standard error. Different letters above the bars indicate that the means are statistically different from each other.

Baillie and Grabowski also conducted feeding trials – but only with a larger lobster pitted against an individual crab (a blue mussel – a preferred food item for both species – was the prey).  Lobsters were much more successful feeders than crabs, and actually increased their feeding rates in the presence of crabs, presumably having no interest in sharing the mussel with its competitor. Taken together, the shelter and feeding experiments suggest a reversal in dominance structure occurs over the course of lobster development.  The abundant Asian shore crab outcompetes small juvenile lobsters for shelter, but once lobsters attain a certain size, they can outcompete crabs for both shelter and food. We still don’t know, for sure, whether the decline in lobsters in the low intertidal zone at the study site was caused by the increase in crabs; the Asian shore crab may still be expanding its range, so it may be possible to more directly study changes in distribution at other sites both north and south of its current range. Fortunately for lobsters (and for lobster consumers), juveniles can also grow and flourish in deeper ocean waters, where Asian shore crabs are much less of a threat.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Baillie, C. J. and Grabowski, J. H. (2018), Competitive and agonistic interactions between the invasive Asian shore crab and juvenile American lobster. Ecology, 99: 2067-2079. doi:10.1002/ecy.2432. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2018 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.