Rare sheep’s head mushroom in Naardermeer, Netherlands

Sheep's head mushroom, Naardermeer, 16 October 2022

Sheep’s head mushroom, Naardermeer, 16 October 2022

At the bottom of an oak tree near the duck decoy in Naardermeer nature reserve grew this sheep’s head mushroom on 16 October 2022.

Sheep's head mushroom, Naardermeer, on 16 October 2022

Sheep’s head mushroom, Naardermeer, on 16 October 2022

Autumn leaves on it. This is a rare species in the Netherlands.

Bromeliad plants and hummingbirds, new research

This 1 December 2020 video says about itself:

Bromeliads: the explosive plant family

The Linnean Society of London publishes three peer-reviewed scientific journals in biology, botany and zoology. The journals cover original scientific papers and studies.

New plant species evolved in Swiss Alps

This 2014 video says about itself:

Cardamine amara (Cardamine amère) (also Large bittercress) is a flowering plant in the family Brassicaceae.

From the University of Zurich in Switzerland:

Evolution in action: New Plant species in the Swiss Alps

October 6, 2020

A new plant species named Cardamine insueta appeared in the region of Urnerboden in the Swiss alps, after the land has changed from forest to grassland over the last 150 years. The inheritance of two key traits from its parent plants enabled the newly emerged species to grow in a distinct environmental niche, as researches from the University of Zurich now show.

The emergence of a new species is generally thought to occur over long periods of time. But — as the example of the plant Cardamine insueta shows — evolution can also happen quite quickly. C. insueta, a new bittercress species first described in 1972, has only recently emerged in Urnerboden, a small alpine village in central Switzerland. It evolved just within the past 150 years due to environmental changes in the surrounding valley: when the local people cleared the forest and turned it into pasture land.

New plant species allows to observe ‘evolution in action’

“C. insueta proves to be an exceptional case to directly analyze the genetic traits and environmental responses of a new species. In other words: to observe ‘evolution in action’, a main topic of the university’s corresponding University Research Priority Program,” says Rie Shimizu-Inatsugi from the Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies at the University of Zurich (UZH). The plant biologists were now able to unravel the genetic mechanisms underlying the plant’s evolution.

C. insueta developed from two parent species with specific ecological habitats: while C. amara grows in and beside water streams, C. rivularis inhabits slightly moist sites. The land-use conversion from forest to grassland induced the hybridization of the two progenitors generating the new species that is found in-between the parents’ habitats with temporal water level fluctuation. “It is the combination of genetic traits from its parents that enabled the new species to grow in a distinct environmental niche,” says Shimizu-Inatsugi. In fact, C. insueta inherited one set of chromosomes from C. amara and two sets of chromosomes from C. rivularis. It therefore contains three sets of chromosomes making it a so-called triploid plant.

Inheritance of two key parental traits enabled the survival

To characterize the responses to a fluctuating environment, the research team used high-throughput sequencing to analyze the time-course gene expression pattern of the three species in response to submergence. They found that the gene activity responsible for two parent traits were key for the survival of the new species in the novel habitat. First, C. insueta can clonally propagate through leaf vivipary, meaning it produces plantlets on the surface of leaves that can grow into new plants. It inherited the ability for asexual vegetative reproduction from C. rivularis. Since C. insueta is sexually sterile, it would not have been able to survive without this trait.

Second, C. insueta inherited the submergence tolerance from C. amara, since the genes responsible for this trait were active in both species. “The results show that C. insueta combined advantageous patterns of parental gene activity to contribute to its establishment in a new niche along a water-usage gradient. Depending on the environmental situation, the plant activates different set of genes it inherited from its two parent species.” says Rie Shimizu-Inatsugi.


This work is mainly funded by the University Research Priority Program “Evolution in Action: From Genomes to Ecosystems,” the Swiss National Science Foundation, Japan Science and Technology Agency, and the Human Frontier Science Program.

Arctic plants and insects

This 2014 video from Canada says about itself:

Jennifer Doubt, botanist and curator at the Canadian Museum of Nature, talks about discovering Arctic plants.

She explores terrain in Iqaluit, Nunavut, and Greenland during a Students on Ice Arctic expedition.

Expedition Arctic is an educational web site for youth. It was created by the Canadian Museum of Nature, Students on Ice and Habitat Seven, in collaboration with the Virtual Museum of Canada.

Insect pollination is as important to Arctic plants as it is to plants further south. When flowers abound, the plants have to compete for pollinators. Researchers at the University of Helsinki reveal that higher temperatures cause the flowering periods of different plant species to pile up in time. As a consequence, climate change may affect the competitive relationships of plants. The most attractive plant species steal the majority of pollinators, making other plants flowering at the same time suffer from poorer pollination: here.

Through a unique research collaboration, researchers at the University of Helsinki have exposed major changes taking place in the insect communities of the Arctic. Their study reveals how climate change is affecting small but important predators of other insects, i.e. parasitoids: here.

Columbine flowers, new research

This 26 April 2020 video says about itself:

Learn all the information you need to grow Columbine Flowers, aka Wild Columbine, aka Eastern Red Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis.

Grow this hardy perennial (USDA zones 3-8) in full sun to shade. Columbine will grow just about anywhere as long as the soil drains well. But in this video, I teach you how to germinate columbine seeds, save seeds, identify Columbine, and numerous other tips from pests to diseases and how to avoid them. I also show you just how much Columbines spread. I hope you like it, and please ask any questions in the comments!

We have a very detailed article on this flower here.

From the University of California – Santa Barbara in the USA:

Biologists discover gene critical to development of columbines‘ iconic spurs

August 24, 2020

Once in a while, over the history of life, a new trait evolves that leads to an explosion of diversity in a group of organisms. Take wings, for instance. Every group of animals that evolved them has spun off into a host of different species — birds, bats, insects and pterosaurs. Scientists call these “key innovations.”

Understanding the development of key innovations is critical to understanding the evolution of the amazing array of organisms on Earth. Most of these happened deep in the distant past, making them difficult to study from a genetic perspective. Fortunately, one group of plants has acquired just such a trait in the past few million years.

Columbines, with their elegant nectar spurs, promise scientists an opportunity to investigate the genetic changes that underpin a key innovation. After much research, UC Santa Barbara professor Scott Hodges, research associate Evangeline Ballerini, and their coauthors at Harvard University have identified a gene critical to the development of these structures. And to their knowledge, this is among the first key innovations for which a critical developmental gene has been identified. Their findings appear in the journal PNAS.

The researchers named the gene after Gregg Popovich, head coach of the San Antonio Spurs basketball team. “This gene is a transcription factor, which means it controls spur development in columbines by regulating the activity of other genes,” explained Ballerini. “So I chose the name POPOVICH because as coach, Popovich controls San Antonio Spurs development, in a sense, by regulating the activity of his players.”

The evolution of spurs in columbines’ ancestors seems to have led to rapid expansion in the genus. Around 70 species evolved over the past 5 to 7 million years, compared to its spurless sister genus, which counts only four species among its members.

And columbines aren’t the only flowers with spurs. The trait evolved independently in many different plants, including nasturtiums, larkspurs and impatiens. “And in each of those groups, the ones that have spurs have far more species than their closest relatives that don’t have spurs,” said Hodges.

“We think that diversity is linked to the evolution of this spur because the spur produces nectar, which attracts animal pollinators,” Ballerini said. Changing the length or shape of the spur changes the animals that can pollinate the flower. “Bees are only moving pollen between bee flowers, hummingbirds are only moving pollen between hummingbird flowers, so you’re not exchanging genes between those two different populations.” Eventually, the two can split into different species.

The question the researchers were trying to answer was how innovations like these develop in the first place. “If we can find genes that are important in the development of a key innovation, that will help us understand this kind of process,” said Hodges.

“In most of these cases — like in the wing example with birds, bats and insects — those evolved so long ago that it’s hard to find a particular gene that was critical for evolving that trait,” he added. “Here we have a fairly recent origin of a key innovation, only 5 to 7 million years ago, and it’s a fairly simple trait, so it’s a little more straightforward.”


Since columbines evolved so recently, most of them can form fertile hybrids with each other. In the 1950s and ’60s, a Polish geneticist crossed a spurless species — appropriately named the spurless columbine — with its spurred cousins. She found that in the first generation of offspring all had spurs, but self-pollinating these yielded a second generation where spurlessness reappeared in a quarter of the plants.

That ratio was crucial to Hodges and Ballerini’s work some half a century later. This simple fraction suggested that a single gene controlled the development of spurs. But columbines have roughly 30,000 genes, and only one was the gene they were looking for.

Following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Hodges also crossed the spurless columbine with a spurred species, and then self-pollinated the offspring. But unlike in the previous experiment, Ballerini and Hodges now had the tools to search the plants’ genetic code.

Ballerini sequenced the genome of each of the nearly 300-second generation plants and looked for instances in which the spurless plants had inherited two copies from their spurless grandparent. This narrowed the search to around 1,100 genes on one of the plants’ chromosomes.

Still, 1,100 genes are a lot to sort through. “There was no guarantee that these methods would lead us to the gene we were looking for,” Ballerini said. “There was definitely quite a bit of work that went into all of the experiments and analyses, but in the end, there was a bit of luck too.”

Ballerini examined the expression of genes during five stages of early petal development in the spurless columbine and three other spurred species. She sequenced all the genes that were turned on in each stage and looked for consistent differences between the spurless and spurred plants. Eventually, with input from one of her collaborators at Harvard, Ballerini suspected she had identified the right gene. It was always turned off in the spurless species, turned on in the spurred species and was one of the 1,100 genes previously identified as associated with spurless flowers in the genetic cross. Now it was time to test her hypothesis.

She used a genetically modified virus to knock down the expression of the gene in question as well as a gene critical for producing red pigment. This way they could tell which petals were affected just by looking at the color.

Wherever POPOVICH was sidelined, the flowers developed diminutive spurs. But spur length depends both on the number and the size of cells. So the researchers worked with collaborators to count the number and measure the length of each cell making up these diminutive spurs.

“The longer spurs had more cells, and the shorter spurs had fewer cells,” Hodges noted. “So the gene must have been acting by affecting how many cells were produced.”

Ballerini remembers sitting in her office after finishing her final analyses. She began throwing out potential gene names to graduate student Zac Cabin, a fellow sports enthusiast. “At the same time Zac and I turned to each other and both said ‘POPOVICH!'” she recalled. The name seemed a perfect fit. “And it leaves open the possibility that, if we identify other genes at play in spur development, we can name them after some of the players on the Spurs.”

A path to new discoveries

While identifying POPOVICH is certainly an achievement, the true value of the discovery lies in what it reveals about the evolution of key innovations. Before this work, none of the plant groups that had well-known genomes also made spurs. “We had no idea where to start,” said Hodges. “This discovery provides us a foothold.”

“Once we identify one gene — like this gene, which seems to be key in the process of forming spurs — then we can start to figure out all of the components,” he added. The team can now begin investigating which genes POPOVICH regulates, and which genes regulate POPOVICH. “This is a place to start to understand the whole system.”

While the researchers don’t know how POPOVICH functions in other groups of plants, it appears to influence the number of leaflets that grow on bur clovers. Columbines also express the gene in their leaves; perhaps it was recruited from the leaves into petal development, Ballerini suggested.

Novel adaptations don’t appear out of nowhere, she explained. “When you’re evolving a new structure, usually you’re not evolving a whole brand new gene.” Generally, organisms repurpose or add a purpose to an existing gene.

The authors are also interested in identifying genes involved in the second phase of spur formation: the elongation of the cells in the spur cup.

“These are things that we will want to do now that we’ve identified this gene,” Hodges said. “And since it’s a transcription factor, it must have particular genes that it’s affecting. The next logical step would be to identify the targets of this gene, and that would tell us a lot more about how it functions.”

The researchers expressed their gratitude toward Harvey Karp, who generously funded the Karp Discovery Award that made their research possible. “We really couldn’t have done this project without it,” Ballerini said.

Flowers, butterflies of La Palma, Canary islands

This June 2020 video shows flowers, butterflies, other wildlife of La Palma, Canary islands.

Among the butterflies: Long-tailed Blue (Lampides boeticus), a male of Monarch (Danaus plexippus), a female of Small White (Pieris rapae).

How crickets help Japanese orchids

This 2013 video is called Orchid Flower – Tropical Orchidaceae. Taxonomy: Apostasioideae Subfamily.

From Kobe University in Japan:

An ancient association? Crickets disperse seeds of early-diverging orchid Apostasia nipponica

August 10, 2020

Associate Professor SUETSUGU Kenji (Kobe University Graduate School of Science) presents evidence of the apparently unusual seed dispersal system by crickets and camel crickets in Apostasia nipponica (Apostasioideae), acknowledged as an early-diverging lineage of Orchidaceae. These findings were published on August 11 in the online edition of Evolution Letters.

Seed dispersal is a key evolutionary process and a central theme in terrestrial plant ecology. Animal-mediated seed dispersal, most frequently by birds and mammals, benefits seed plants by ensuring efficient and directional transfer of seeds without relying on random abiotic factors such as wind and water. Seed dispersal by animals is generally a coevolved mutualistic relationship in which a plant surrounds its seeds with an edible, nutritious fruit as a good food for animals that consume it. Birds and mammals are the most important seed dispersers, but a wide variety of other animals, including turtles and fish, can transport viable seeds. However, the importance of seed dispersal by invertebrates has received comparatively little attention. Therefore, discoveries of uncommon mechanisms of seed dispersal by invertebrates such as wetas, beetles and slugs usually evoke public curiosity toward animal-plant mutualisms.

Unlike most plants, all of the >25,000 species of orchids are heterotrophic in their early life history stages, obtaining resources from fungi before the production of photosynthetic leaves. Orchid seeds, therefore, contain minimal energy reserves and are numerous and dust-like, which maximizes the chance of a successful encounter with fungi in the substrate. Despite considerable interest in the ways by which orchid flowers are pollinated, little attention has been paid to how their seeds are dispersed, owing to the dogma that wind dispersal is their predominant strategy. Orchid seeds are very small and extremely light, and are produced in large numbers. These seeds do not possess an endosperm but instead usually have large internal air spaces that allow them to float in the air column. In addition, orchid seeds are usually winged or filiform, evolved to be potentially carried by air currents. Furthermore, most orchid seeds have thin papery coats formed by a single layer of non-lignified dead cells. It has been thought that these fragile thin seed coats cannot withstand the digestive fluids of animals, in contrast to the thick seed coats in indehiscent fruits, which are considered an adaptation for endozoochory.

However, it is noteworthy that the subfamily Apostasioideae commonly has indehiscent fruits with hard, crustose black seed coats. Apostasioids are the earliest-diverging subfamily of orchids and consist of only two genera (Apostasia and Neuwiedia), with only ~20 species distributed in southeastern Asia, Japan, and northern Australia. All Apostasia and most Neuwiedia species investigated to date are known to possess berries with hard seed coats. Apostasioids are also well known for several unique traits, such as a non-resupinate flower with an actinomorphic perianth and pollen grains that do not form pollinia. These have been considered ancestral characteristics in orchids, given that they are similar to those found in the members of Hypoxidaceae (which is closely related to Orchidaceae) family. Similarly, the presence of an indehiscent fruit with a thick seed coat, found in most Apostasia and Neuwiedia species can be an ancestral trait in orchids.

Here Suetsugu has studied the Apostasia nipponica (Apostasioideae) seed dispersal system in the forest understory of the warm-temperate forests on Yakushima Island, Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan. Consequently, Suetsugu presents the evidence for seed dispersal by crickets and camel crickets in A. nipponica. Similar results were obtained in different years, indicating that this interaction is likely stable, at least in the investigated site. It probably constitutes a mutualism, wherein both partners benefit from the association — orthopteran visitors obtain nutrients from the pulp and A. nipponica achieves dispersal of seeds from the parent plants. The seeds of A. nipponica are coated with lignified tissue that likely protects the seeds as they pass through the digestive tract of crickets and camel crickets. Although neither the cricket nor camel cricket can fly, they potentially transport the seeds long distances owing to their remarkable jumping abilities. Despite the traditional view that the minute, dust-like, and wind-dispersed orchid seeds can travel long distances, both genetic and experimental research has indicated that orchids have limited dispersal ability; orchid seeds often fall close to the maternal plant (within a few meters), particularly in understory species. Given that A. nipponica fruits are produced close to the ground in dark understory environments where the wind speed is low, seed dispersal by crickets is probably a successful strategy for this orchid.

Orchid seeds lack a definitive fossil record due to their extremely minute size. Therefore, the interaction described here provides some important clues as to the animals that may have participated in the seed dispersal of the ancestors of orchids. Given that the origin of crickets and camel crickets precedes the evolution of orchids, they are among the candidates for seed dispersers of the ancestors of extant orchids. Owing to many plesiomorphic characteristics and the earliest-diverging phylogenetic position, members of Apostasioideae have been extensively studied to understand their floral structure, taxonomy, biogeography, and genome. However, there is still a lack of information regarding seed dispersal in the subfamily. Therefore, Suetsugu has documented the animal-mediated seed dispersal of Apostasioideae members for the first time. Whether seed dispersal by animals (and particularly by orthopteran fruit feeders) is common in these orchids warrants further investigation. It is possible that this method of dispersal is an ancestral trait in Apostasioideae, given that indehiscent fruits with a hard seed coat are common within the clade. Further research, such as an ancestral character-state reconstruction analysis of more data on the seed dispersal systems of other apostasioids, can provide deeper insights into the early evolution of the seed dispersal system in Orchidaceae.

New Guinea, world’s most diverse flowers

This 2014 video says about itself:

Some of the spectacular diverse plant life of the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea.

From the University of Zurich in Zwitserland:

New Guinea has the world’s richest island flora

August 5, 2020

Summary: New Guinea is the most floristically diverse island in the world, an international collaboration has shown. The study presents a list of almost 14,000 plant species, compiled from online catalogues and verified by plant experts. The results are invaluable for research and conservation, and also underline the importance of expert knowledge in the digital era.

Almost 20 times the size of Switzerland, New Guinea is the world’s largest tropical island. It features a complex mosaic of ecosystems from lowland jungles to high-elevation grasslands with peaks higher than Mont Blanc. Botanists have long known that this mega-diverse wilderness area is home to a large number of plant species. Efforts to identify and name thousands of plants collected in New Guinea and archived in herbaria all over the world have been ongoing since the 17th century.

However, since researchers have worked mostly independently from each other, a great uncertainty remains as to the exact number of plant species, with conflicting estimates ranging from 9,000 to 25,000. “Compared to other areas like Amazonia, for which plant checklists were recently published, New Guinea remained the ‘Last Unknown’,” says Rodrigo Cámara-Leret, a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Prof. Jordi Bascompte in the UZH Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies. Under his lead, 99 scientists from 56 institutions and 19 countries have now built the first expert-verified checklist for the 13,634 vascular plant species of New Guinea and its surrounding islands.

Merging databases and human knowledge

The researchers began their large-scale collaborative effort by compiling a list of plant names from online catalogues, institutional repositories and datasets curated by taxonomists. After standardizing the scientific names, 99 experts on New Guinea flora checked almost 25,000 species names derived from over 700,000 individual specimens. For this, they reviewed the list of original names in their plant family of expertise and assessed whether these names were correctly assigned in the online platforms. Finally, an independent comparison was performed between the list accepted by experts and a list contained in Plants of the World Online for New Guinea.

Tremendous, mostly endemic plant diversity

The resulting checklist contains 13,634 plants, demonstrating that New Guinea has the world’s richest island flora, with about 20% more species than Madagascar or Borneo. By far the most species-rich family are the orchids and almost a third of the species are trees. One particularly remarkable finding is that 68% of the plants are endemic, they are only found in the region. “Such high endemic species richness is unmatched in tropical Asia,” says Cámara-Leret, “It means that Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, the two states into which the island is divided, have a unique responsibility for the survival of this irreplaceable biodiversity.”

Foundation for research and protection

The new authoritative checklist will improve the accuracy of biogeographic and ecological studies, help focus DNA sequencing on species-rich groups with high endemism, and facilitate the discovery of more species by taxonomists. Thousands of specimens remain unidentified in the collections and many unknown species have yet to be discovered in the wild. “We estimate that in the next 50 years, 3,000 to 4,000 species will be added,” says Michael Kessler, co-author of the study and scientific curator of the Botanical Garden of the University of Zurich. These efforts will be important for conservation planning and modelling the impact of changes in climate and land use.

The collaboration also underscores that expert knowledge is still essential in the digital era, reliance on online platforms alone would have erroneously inflated species counts by one fifth. However, many of the New Guinea plants experts are already or soon to be retired, and almost half of them are non-residents. The researchers therefore advocate building a critical mass of resident plant taxonomists.

Policy-wise, the study shows that long-term institutional and financial support is critical if significant advances are to be made over the next decades. “Our work demonstrates that international collaborative efforts using verified digital data can rapidly synthesize biodiversity information. This can serve as a model for accelerating research in other hyper-diverse areas such as Borneo,” says Cámara-Leret. “Such initiatives pave the way for the grand challenge of conserving the richest island flora of the world.”

New truffle fungus species discovered

This September 2020 video says about itself:

Why Can’t We Farm These Foods Yet?

There are some foods [like truffles] that are so popular that they are at risk of going extinct. What are they and why is it so difficult to harvest them?

From Oregon State University in the USA:

A 40-year journey leads to a new truffle species

August 4, 2020

As a first-year graduate student studying truffle ecology at Oregon State University, Dan Luoma attended a scientific meeting in 1981 on Orcas Island in Washington. Having recently learned how to search for truffles, he went out one day of the meeting looking for the prized fungi and found a collection.

He brought them back to Oregon State and showed them to his mentor James Trappe, who confirmed the collection was of an undescribed species. Trappe added it to the university’s collection. Then it sat there.

Almost four decades later, with the help of new scientific technologies, Trappe and several other scientists confirmed that the truffle is unique. They recently published their findings
in the journal Fungal Systematics and Evolution recognizing it as a new species. Fittingly, it’s named Tuber luomae after Luoma, who retired this year after 40 years at Oregon State.

“This truffle in 1981 was among the first truffles I ever found,” Luoma said. “To have it named in my honor the year I retired completes the circle for me. It’s a wonderful way to celebrate retirement.”

Some truffle species are highly prized for culinary purposes because of their distinct flavor. These species, which are black, white or brown, are hard to find and exist in limited geographic areas, meaning they command high prices.

Oregon and the Pacific Northwest are home to several of those prized species, making the region one of the world’s hot spots for truffle hunting. The species discovered by Luoma, though, is a red truffle, which doesn’t have the distinct flavor sought by chefs and cooks.

While the culinary use of truffles and the thrill of searching for them gets a lot of attention, they and other fungi are important for the health of forests. They provide nutrients to plants and can also help plants withstand drought.

Luoma studied the ecology of truffles and fungi while earning his doctorate from Oregon State in 1988 and until earlier this year worked as a researcher at the university.

Several graduate students who worked with him during his early years planned to name the truffle species he found on Orcas Island in honor of Luoma, but they graduated before doing so.

Then about 10 years ago Trappe, now Luoma’s colleague, searched the Oregon State truffle collections, the largest in the world with about 50,000 collections, looking for truffles similar to the one Luoma found on Orcas Island. Trappe found three.

Joyce Eberhart, a truffle researcher at Oregon State and Luoma’s wife, and Greg Bonito, an assistant professor at Michigan State University, studied the DNA of those three and determined they were the same species as the Orcas Island truffle.

Those three were all found in Oregon — one each in Benton (found in 1962), Clackamas (1995) and Jackson (2012) counties. While the Benton County specimen was found before Luoma dug up the Orcas Island one, it was never fully described until Trappe noticed the similarities between the two. Now the known distribution of the new species extends from southwestern Oregon to northwestern Washington.

Carolina Piña Páez, a doctoral student at Oregon State who also does truffle research, provided the final piece by documenting the microscopic structures inside the truffle with photos, confirming that the spores and outer layers were that of a unique species.

Trappe, who has studied truffles for more than 60 years and has discovered 230 new truffle species, still gets excited about a new species, such as this one named after Luoma.

“Many dozens of professional and amateur mycologists have sought truffles in western Oregon for over 100 years, but only these four collections of Luoma’s truffle have been found. Each of those seems to be quite local in distribution, indicating that it’s a very rare fungus,” Trappe said.

Cycad plants help other wildlife

This January 2020 video is called World’s Largest Cycad Collection at Nong Nooch, Thailand.

From the University of Guam:

Cycad plants provide an important ‘ecosystem service’

Loss of cycads from natural habitats may create detrimental ripple effects for other organisms

July 27, 2020

A study published in the June 2020 edition of the peer-reviewed journal Horticulturae shows that cycads, which are in decline and among the world’s most threatened group of plants, provide an important service to their neighboring organisms. The study, completed by researchers from the Western Pacific Tropical Research Center at the University of Guam and the Montgomery Botanical Center in Miami, found that at least two cycad species share nitrogen and carbon through the soil, thereby creating habitable environments for other organisms.

“The new knowledge from this study shows how loss of cycad plants from natural habitats may create detrimental ripple effects that negatively influence the other organisms that evolved to depend on their ecosystem services,” said Patrick Griffith, executive director of the Montgomery Botanical Center.

Cycad plants host nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria within specialized roots. The tiny microbes willingly share the newly acquired nitrogen with their hosts as their contribution to a symbiosis that benefits both organisms.

Research teams at the University of Guam have long been studying the nutrient relations of Cycas micronesica throughout its endemic range, according to Adrian Ares, associate director of the Western Pacific Tropical Research Center.

“This unique arborescent cycad species is of cultural and ecological importance, and the findings illuminate new knowledge about the ecosystem services that are provided by the plant,” Ares said.

The study focused on the concentrations in soil of three elements that impact the growth and development of living organisms. In soils nearby the cycad plants, nitrogen and carbon increased to concentrations that exceeded those of soils that were distant from the plants. In contrast, phosphorus concentrations were depleted in the soils nearby the cycad plants when compared to the distant soils.

“In addition to the direct contributions of carbon and nitrogen to the bulk soils, the chemical changes imposed by the cycad plants created niche habitats that increased spatial heterogeneity in the native forests,” Ares said, adding that ecosystems with high biodiversity are generally more resistant to damage by threats and more resilient after the negative impacts.

The niche spaces created by the cycad plants provide the soil food web with a microhabitat that differs from the surrounding forest soils. These soils imprinted by the cycad plants benefit the organisms that exploit spaces characterized by greater nitrogen levels relative to phosphorus and greater carbon levels relative to phosphorus. Scientists call these elemental relationships “stoichiometry,” and much has been studied about the importance of these relationships to organismal health and productivity.

The model cycad plants that were employed for the study included two of the cycad species that are native to the United States.

“This study was apropos because the Montgomery Botanical Center is positioned within Zamia integrifolia habitat in Miami, Fla., and the Western Pacific Tropical Research Center is within Cycas micronesica habitat in Mangilao, Guam,” Griffith said.

The Florida species is the only cycad species that is native to the continental United States, and the Guam species is the only Cycas species native to the United States.

“Both research teams were gratified to successfully answer questions that were asked of the botanical denizens that have long resided in the respective local forests,” Griffith said.