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Newfound Species of Pepper Plant Plays Host to Scores of Species

Feb 07, 2014 05:02 PM EST
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A newly discovered plant species said to be a wild relative of black pepper is reported to the be sole home of an estimated 40-50 insect species, most of which are entirely dependent on the plant for survival.

Writing in the open-access journal PhytoKeys, biologist working in the Andes mountains of Ecuador report that the chemical compounds produced by the new species of pepper plant are well-known to have an effect on a variety of species.

"These compounds are known to deter most herbivores, but a certain group of caterpillars has been able to overcome their toxicity and, as a result, most species of the genus feed only on a single species of wild black pepper," the researchers wrote in a statement. "To make matters more complex, each of these caterpillars typically has one to several predatory wasp and/or fly species that attack only that caterpillar species."

Michael Dillon of the Field Museum in Chicago and his colleague Federico Luebert of the University of Berlin, report that the new pepper plant species, Piper kelleyi, is "the largest number of specialized caterpillar and predator species recorded for species in the black pepper family to date."

"Piper kelleyi supports an estimated 40-50 species of specialized herbivores and predators, which makes this newly described plant species, in itself, a veritable biodiversity hotspot," the researches said in a statement.

It's unclear whether any vertebrate species, such as bats or birds, are dependent on the insects that live on pepper plant, but the researchers suspect that if the pepper plant were to disappear, its dependent species would likely disappear as well.

Furthermore, in their research paper the scientists write that the pepper plant is endemic to an inter-Andean valley in central Peru from near Tarma.

"Given that this species appears confined to a single locality and of a few individuals, it would be considered 'critically endangered,'" the researchers said.

The newly described species of wild black pepper, Piper kelleyi, in its native habitat (left). The pinkish undersides of the leaves (upper right) gave this species the nickname
The newly described species of wild black pepper, Piper kelleyi, in its native habitat (left). The pinkish undersides of the leaves (upper right) gave this species the nickname "pink belly" among members of the research team. The flowers (center right) and fruits (lower right) are not very showy, but the fruits do have some of black pepper's familiar pungency. Credit: E.J. Tepe
This is the newly described species of wild black pepper, Piper kelleyi, with some of the insects that depend on it for their survival, including the herbivorous caterpillar (lower right) that feeds only on this species, and examples of the predatory wasps (center right) and flies (upper right) that attack the caterpillars. The caterpillar is ca. 1 cm long, the wasp is ca. 2.5 mm long, and the fly is ca. 0.8 mm long.  Credit: E.J. Tepe (plant), C. Morrison (caterpillar), J.B. Whitfield (wasp), and D.J. Incl‡n (fly)
This is the newly described species of wild black pepper, Piper kelleyi, with some of the insects that depend on it for their survival, including the herbivorous caterpillar (lower right) that feeds only on this species, and examples of the predatory wasps (center right) and flies (upper right) that attack the caterpillars. The caterpillar is ca. 1 cm long, the wasp is ca. 2.5 mm long, and the fly is ca. 0.8 mm long. Credit: E.J. Tepe (plant), C. Morrison (caterpillar), J.B. Whitfield (wasp), and D.J. Incl‡n (fly)

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