Animal, fungal, and bacterial consumers can have dramatic effects on the structure of plant communities, often by consuming dominant competitors and indirectly increasing the abundance of inferior competitors. We investigated the role of a consumer plant, the parasite Cuscuta salina, on plant zonation in a western salt marsh. Cuscuta had a strong host species preference in experiments, disproportionally infecting Salicornia virginica, the dominant competitor in most of the marsh. In plots with Cuscuta, which infected 18% of our study area over a 3-year period, Salicornia cover decreased and the cover of Arthrocnemum increased substantially in comparison to plots without Cuscuta. Deep in the Salicornia zone, the cover of Arthrocnemum in Cuscuta-infected plots increased by 558% in 1 year relative to uninfected plots. At the ecotone, the cover of Arthrocnemum in Cuscuta-infected plots increased by only 41% during the same time interval. These data suggest that the relative benefit of a consumer to a less-preferred, subordinate competitor may be strongest where competition is the most asymmetrical as predicted by recent theoretical models. By weakening the competitive dominant, which in the absence of the parasite can create virtual monocultures, Cuscuta enhanced community diversity and altered the ecotone between Salicornia and Arthrocnemum. Cuscuta patches were highly dynamic at the ecotone between Salicornia and Arthrocnemum, and thus the changes we measured in our sample plots were likely to be representative of large portions of the marsh. Our findings emphasize the importance of trophic interactions in salt marsh structure and zonation.
- Indirect effects
- Parasitic plants