Invasive Species Compendium

Detailed coverage of invasive species threatening livelihoods and the environment worldwide

Abstract

Parasites on parasites: hyper-, epi-, and autoparasitism among flowering plants.

Abstract

All organisms engage in parasitic relations, as either parasites or hosts. Some species may even play both roles simultaneously. Among flowering plants, the most widespread form of parasitism is characterized by the development of an intrusive organ called the haustorium, which absorbs water and nutrients from the host. Despite this functionally unifying feature of parasitic plants, haustoria are not homologous structures; they have evolved 12 times independently. These plants represent ca. 1% of all extant flowering species and show a wide diversity of life histories. A great variety of plants may also serve as hosts, including other parasitic plants. This phenomenon of parasitic exploitation of another parasite, broadly known as hyper- or epiparasitism, is well described among bacteria, fungi, and animals, but remains poorly understood among plants. Here, we review empirical evidence of plant hyperparasitism, including variations of self-parasitism, discuss the diversity and ecological importance of these interactions, and suggest possible evolutionary mechanisms. Hyperparasitism may provide benefits in terms of improved nutrition and enhanced host-parasite compatibility if partners are related. Different forms of self-parasitism may facilitate nutrient sharing among and within parasitic plant individuals, while also offering potential for the evolution of hyperparasitism. Cases of hyperparasitic interactions between parasitic plants may affect the ecology of individual species and modulate their ecosystem impacts. Parasitic plant phenology and disperser feeding behavior are considered to play a major role in the occurrence of hyperparasitism, especially among mistletoes. There is also potential for hyperparasites to act as biological control agents of invasive primary parasitic host species.