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Parasite Plant: Cheating Orchid Feeds Off Fungi Instead of Sunlight

Nov 08, 2016 04:20 AM EST
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While most plants need sunlight for photosynthesis, scientists have discovered a species of orchid in Japan that can survive by obtaining nutrients through a special type of symbiosis with fungi.

In a study published in the open access journal PhytoKeys, leading author Dr. Kenji Suetsugu from Kobe University has named the new orchid species Lecanorchis tabugawaensis. This mycoheterotrophic plant has strange eating habits and could be found among all plant species groups. Mycoheterotrophy is a Greek term that describes the bizarre symbiotic relationship between some plants and fungi. By parasitizing upon the fungi, the plant is able to get nutrients without photosynthesis.

Scientists consider this a "cheating" relationship and would sometimes refer to these plants as "mycorrhizal cheaters." Mycoheterotrophic plants are extremely scarce and are typically small in size, usually hiding in the dark layer of vegetation beneath forest trees and are only discoverable during the flowering and fruiting period.

Since these 'cheating' plants are highly dependent on the activities of both the fungi and the trees that provide their nutrients, they are very prone to environmental destruction.

"Due to the sensitivity of mycoheterotrophic plants it has long been suggested that their species richness provides a useful indicator of the overall floral diversity of forest habitats. A detailed record of the distribution of these vulnerable plants therefore provides crucial data for the conservation of primary forests," explained Dr. Suetsugu.

Even though Lecanorchis tabugawaensis was just discovered, the new orchid species has been already assessed with an International Union for Conservation of Nature status of Critically Endangered. This fungus-eating cheater, which could only be found in two locations along the Tabu and Onna Rivers, will definitely need conservation attention.

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