Changing climate promotes prolific plants and satiated consumers

Plants in Sweden can have a difficult life, but climate change has provided a more benign environment for some of them, including the white swallow-wort, Vincetoxicum hirundinaria. This perennial herb grows in patches in sun-exposed rocky areas, in forests located below cliffs, and along the edges of wooded areas. The plant forms clumps that are heavily laden with flowers in June and July, and creates pod-like fruits in July and August

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Vincetoxicum hirundinaria growing in rocky outcrop (top photo). Vincetoxicum pods releasing their wind-dispersed seeds (bottom photo).

Christer Solbreck has had a lifelong interest in insect populations, and he has been following the insects that eat Vincetoxicum’s seeds for the past 40 years. As he described to me, surprisingly few population ecologists actually measure the amount of food available to insects. I should add that very few people have the resilience to study the same population of insects for 40 years, either. And interestingly, though this paper discusses the effect of a changing climate on seed production and seed predation, it was not Solbreck’s intent to consider climate change as a variable when he began, as climate change was not a concern of most scientists in the 1970s.

But climate change has happened in southeastern Sweden (and elsewhere), and has affected ecosystems in many different ways. Ecologists can quantify climate change by describing its effect on the vegetation period, or growing season (days above 5°C), which has increased by about 20 days since the mid 1990s.

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Length of growing season (vegetation period) in southern Sweden.

During the same time period the abundance of Vincetoxicum has increased sharply.

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Vincetoxicum abundance, measured as area of the research site covered, during the study.

You will note that “Vincetoxicum” has the word “toxic” in its midst; the seeds are toxic to most consumers, and are important food sources for only two insect species. Euphranta connexa females lay eggs in developing fruits of the host plant, with the emerging larva boring through the seeds and killing most of them. Lygaeus equestris is an all-purpose seed predator; both larvae and adults suck on flowers, on developing seeds within the fruits, and on dry seeds they find on the ground up to a year later.

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Euphranta connexa female lays eggs in an immature seed pod.

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Lygaeus equestra larva feeds on a fallen seed.

Solbreck teamed up with biostatistician Jonas Knape to analyze his data. From the beginning of the study, Solbreck suspected that annual variation in weather – particularly rainfall – might influence Vincetoxicum seed production, and consequent population growth of the two insect species. They discovered something quite unexpected; the dynamics of seed production shifted dramatically in the second half of the study, alternating annually from very high to very low production over that period. This dynamic shift coincides with the extension of the growth season as a result of climate change.

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Seed pod abundance by year.

The researchers argue that there is a non-linear negative feedback relationship of the previous year’s seed production on the current year’s seed production. Negative feedback occurs when an increase in one factor or event causes a subsequent decrease in that same factor or event. In this case, an increase in seed production uses up plant resources, leading to a decrease in seed production the following year. But the effect is non-linear, and does not come into play unless Vincetoxicum produces a huge number of seeds, as shown by the graph below,

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Seed production in the current year in relation to seed production in the previous year. Note that both axes are logarithmic. The curve represents the expected seed pod density generated by the statistical model, with the shaded area representing the 95% credible intervals. Open circles are data for 1977-1996, while closed circles are data for 1997-2016.

The researchers also found that high rainfall in June and July increased seed production.

So how do these wild fluctuations in seed production affect insects and the plant itself? One important finding is that in high seed production years, the proportion of seeds attacked by insects plummets because the sheer number of seeds overwhelms the seed-eating abilities of the insect consumers. Ecologists describe this phenomenon as predator satiation.

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Seed predation rates in relation to seed pod density.  Note that both axes are logarithmic. The curve represents the expected predation rate generated by the statistical model, with the shaded area representing the 95% credible intervals. Points are E. connexa predation rates while triangles are combined predation by both insect species.

As a result of predator satiation, there were, on average, seven times as many healthy (unattacked) seed pods in 1997-2016 than there were in 1977-1996. Presumably, this increased number of healthy seeds translates to an increase in new plants becoming established in the area. An important takehome message is that the entire dynamics of an ecosystem can change as a result of changes to the environment, in this case, climate change. More long-term studies are needed to evaluate how common these shifting dynamics are likely to become in the novel environmental conditions we humans are creating.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Solbreck, Christer and Knape, Jonas (2017), Seed production and predation in a changing climate: new roles for resource and seed predator feedback?. Ecology, 98: 2301–2311. doi:10.1002/ecy.1941. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2017 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Meta-analysis measures multiple mycorrhizal benefits to plants

Plants and fungi sometimes live together in peace and harmony. Arbuscular mycorrhizal associations are associations between plant roots and fungi, in which the fungal hyphae (usually branched tubular structures) grow between root cells, penetrating some cells with a network of branches or arbuscules.  Oftentimes these are mutualistic associations with both the plants and the fungi benefiting from living together. Though plants with arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) tend to grow better than plants without AMF, it not always clear what causes them to do so.

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Kura clover, Trifolium ambiguum, grown with AMF (left) and without AMF (right). Credit: Liz Koziol.

Ecologists have traditionally viewed arbuscular mycorrhizal associations as a straightforward nutrient-carbon exchange. Fungal hyphae, with their vast surface area, pick up nutrients (such as nitrogen and phosphorus compounds) from the soil, which they deliver to the root cells in exchange for plant-produced carbon molecules.

But recently researchers have identified numerous other potential ways that the fungi help the plants, including the following: (1) promoting water uptake and transport, (2) helping to spread allelochemicals – toxic chemicals that some plants release to rid themselves of nearby competitors, (3) inducing chemical defenses against herbivores, (4) enhancing disease resistance, and (5) promoting soil aggregation or clumping, which stabilizes the soil near the roots, reduces erosion and promotes stable water flow.

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Camille Delavaux and her colleagues wondered whether these other plant benefits might actually be more important than we originally thought. Delavaux was planning to write a review paper for a 1 credit independent study, but she found so many papers on this topic that she decided to collaborate with fellow students Lauren Smith-Ramesh and Sara Kuebbing on a full-scale meta-analysis.

A meta-analysis is a systematic analysis of data collected by many other researchers. Delavaux and her colleagues used the Web of Science database to find 4410 studies on how AMF supplied plants with nutrients and 1239 studies on how AMF provided other plant benefits. That’s a lot of studies! But for the meta-analysis, the authors only used a small fraction of these studies because they set certain restrictions. For example, to be used in the meta-analysis the authors required each study to show some measure of variation for the data (such as standard deviation or standard error). In addition, the authors required each study to compare plants grown under two conditions: with AMF and without AMF.  In many studies the researchers collected soil, which they sterilized in a hot oven, and then set up a test group, which they inoculated with AMF spores or a plug of soil or root fragments that contained AMF. In addition, these studies also had a control group of plants that received only sterilized soil with no AMF added.

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A collection of eight different species of AMF spores. Credit: Liz Koziol.

Delavaux and her colleagues compared how plants performed with and without an AMF. Because each study was different, one might only have been looking at the effects of AMF on nitrogen uptake performance, while a second study might consider how AMF influenced soil aggregation. Effect size (Hedges d+) compares mean performance of the AMF plant to mean performance of non-AMF plants for a particular variable (such as nitrogen uptake or soil aggregation). A positive effect size means that the AMF plant did better. Of course we need to know how much better is biologically meaningful, so for each variable the researchers calculated the 95% confidence intervals of the mean effect size. If the 95% confidence intervals were positive, then Delavaux and her colleagues could be 95% confident that there was a biologically important effect of AMF on plants for that particular measure of performance.

As expected, the researchers found a positive effect of AMF on plant nitrogen uptake. The mean effect size was 0.674 with a 95% confidence interval of 0.451- 0.912. We can interpret this to mean that we are 95% confident that the true mean effect size on nitrogen uptake is between 0.451 and 0.912. But the greatest effect of AMF on plants was on soil aggregation (mean effect size = 1.645, 95% confidence interval = 1.032 – 2.248). AMF also had significant positive effects on phosphorus uptake, water flow and disease resistance.

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Mean effect size (Hedges’ d+) of AMF on different factors considered in the meta-analysis.  The horizontal error bars are the 95% confidence intervals. n = number of observations.  If the error bars do not cross zero, inoculation with AMF had a significant positive effect relative to plants without AMF.

This meta-analysis shows that AMF help plants in many different ways. Researchers knew about the AMF impact on nitrogen and phosphorus uptake, but may be surprised to learn of equally strong effects on water flow, disease resistance and soil aggregation. Consequently, AMF may be very useful for forest management, agriculture, conservation and habitat restoration. As examples, conservation biologists and forest managers may need to consider adding AMF to soils that have suffered severe burns from fires, which may kill the existing soil fungi. Or agriculturalists intent on growing a particular crop may want to inoculate the soil with a specific group of AMF spores that enhance soil aggregation and water uptake, so their crop may thrive in a habitat that might otherwise not be suitable.

More than 3/4 of land plants form associations with AMF. Consequently, any attempts to restore habitats or to maintain high levels of species diversity in existing ecosystems require understanding what types of AMF inhabit the soils, and how these AMF influence ecosystem functioning.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Delavaux, C. S., Smith-Ramesh, L. M. and Kuebbing, S. E. (2017), Beyond nutrients: a meta-analysis of the diverse effects of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi on plants and soils. Ecology, 98: 2111–2119. doi:10.1002/ecy.1892. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2017 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Nitrogen nurses

Alfred Lord Tennyson puzzled over the conflict between love as a foundation of Christianity, and the apparent violence of the natural world.

Who trusted God was love indeed

And love Creation’s final law

Tho’ nature, red in tooth and claw

With ravine, shriek’d against his creed

The good poet would be relieved to learn that modern ecologists have uncovered a softer, gentler side of the natural world – facilitative interactions, in which one species (the facilitator) helps out a second species. In many, but not all, cases, the second species also helps out the first species. Ecologists describe these mutually-beneficial interactions as mutualisms. As an example, Mimosa luisana is a mutualist with Rhizobium bacteria, providing the bacteria with root nodules to live in and carbohydrates as an energy source, while receiving ammonia (NH3) that the bacteria fix (convert) from atmospheric N2. A second type of mutualism, a mycorrhizal association, is a very common facilitative interaction between plants and fungi, which grow alongside or within the plant roots. In many mycorrhizal associations, the plant provides carbohydrates to the fungi, which import and share nutrients and water.

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Mimosa luisana. Credit: Leticia Soriano Flores, algunos derechos reservados (CC BY-NC)

Alicia Montesinos-Navarro and her colleagues, and researchers before them, noticed that in arid and semi-arid environments, plant-plant facilitation was most common between two plant species that were structurally and functionally very distinct, and that tended to be very distantly related to each other. In particular, M. luisana tends to associate with many different species of plants, including many cacti that look nothing like it, and are very distantly related. M. luisana is called a nurse plant, because other species tend to grow under its branches, which shade the soil and reduce water loss from evaporation. Recent work by Montesinos-Navarro and her colleagues showed another benefit of nursing – some plants receive nitrogen from these nurse plants via the network of mycorrhizal fungi.

Traditionally, ecologists have argued that associations between distantly-related plants occur because the plants have very different ecological niches, using different resources in different ways, so they are not competing with each other. Montesinos-Navarro and her colleagues argue that a second process might be important in this and other systems. Close relatives of M. luisana might tend to have high nitrogen levels and thus not benefit from nitrogen transfer from the nurse plant, while more distantly-related plants might tend to have lower nitrogen levels and thus benefit from any nitrogen arriving from M. luisana. They explored this hypothesis in the semi-arid Valley of Zapotitlan in the state of Puebla, Mexico.

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Study site dominated by the columnar cactus Neobuxbaimia tetezo, Credit: Alicia Montesinos-Navarro.

Measuring nitrogen transfer from the nurse plant to the recipient is not the world’s easiest task. Fortunately there is a rare form or isotope of nitrogen, 15N, which can be distinguished from the more common 14N. The researchers soaked M. luisana leaves in urea that was made up of primarily 15N, and the leaves took up the urea. Consequently, any exported nitrogen would contain a disproportionately high concentration of 15N, resulting in high 15N levels in the recipient plant. They then measured 15N levels in 14 different species of plants that used M. luisana as their nurse. The researchers were able to test two hypotheses. First, they could see whether close relatives to M. luisana tended to have higher N-levels than more distantly related species. Second they could see whether distant relatives tended to receive more nitrogen from nurse plants than did close relatives.

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Mimosa luisana branch taking up 15N-labeled urea. Credit: Alicia Montesinos-Navarro.

The graph below summarizes the results. The y-axis measures how much the 15N level in the facilitated species increased by the end of the experiment (15 days). The x-axis measures the evolutionary relationship between M. luisana and the facilitated species – more precisely how long ago the two species shared a common ancestor. Lastly, the size of the dot measures the initial difference in leaf N-levels between M. luisana and the facilitated plant.

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Influence of evolutionary relationship between M. luisana and the facilitated species (x- axis) and nitrogen gradient – the initial difference in nitrogen levels between the two species (size of dots) on the amount of nitrogen imported by the facilitated species.

Several trends are evident. First, close relatives of M. luisana tended to have similar leaf nitrogen values to M. luisana (medium sized dots), while distant relatives tended to have much less nitrogen than M. luisana (largest dots). Second, the most distant relatives tended to have the greatest increase in their 15N levels, which indicates that they received the greatest nitrogen export from their nurses.

One question is how the nitrogen is transported. Montesinos-Navarro and her colleagues describe how they treated soil with a fungicide, presumably killing the mycorrhizae, which resulted in a substantial reduction in nitrogen transport. This suggests that the mycorrhizal network is important for nitrogen transport. But more pressing is what do the nurse plants get out of the relationship. The researchers suggest that the recipient plants may provide M. luisana with either water or phosphorus, both of which may be in short supply in arid environments.

This study indicates that we need to look beyond traditional niche theory, and may need to  dig deeper to understand the structure of plant communities, and how facilitative interactions can explain the coexistence of very distantly related plants.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is MontesinosNavarro, A., Verdú, M., Querejeta, J. I., & ValienteBanuet, A. (2017). Nurse plants transfer more nitrogen to distantly related species. Ecology, 98(5), 1300-1310. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2017 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.