BIOLOGISTS have discovered an entire new food chain in South America’s mountain rainforests, with dozens of previously unknown species dependent on a single type of pepper tree.
Describing the find as a “mini biodiversity hotspot”, US researchers say it shows how the chemicals in certain plants give rise to a network of dependency.
They say compounds in the newly discovered plant, a wild relative of black pepper, are poisonous to many animals, but a family of caterpillars, known as eois, has evolved to overcome the toxic effects.
The team counted 11 species of eois that feed only on the plant. Each of these in turn is food for at least one species of predatory wasp or fly that targets only that type of caterpillar.
The team found up to 40 fly and wasp species, most previously unidentified. All are dependent on the new plant species, which has been dubbed “pink belly”.
“If the plant were to disappear, all of its associated animal species would too,” the researchers said.
The plant grows on the eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains of Ecuador and Peru. Its identification, reported in the journal PhytoKeys, was part of a larger project investigating the knock-on effects of the chemical compounds that give plants their unique flavours and aromas.
“These compounds often have important medicinal or toxic properties,” the team said.
“Several compounds from the new species are under evaluation and show promise as possible anti-cancer drugs.”
The team, led by University of Cincinnati botanist Eric Tepe, has spent two decades studying more than 100 relatives of black pepper. Its discovery adds to the list of plants and animals that depend on a single species for their existence. An extreme example is the Lord Howe Island stick insect, which was considered extinct for decades until Australian researchers found a surviving population huddled around a single melaleuca bush on an isolated rock in the Pacific.
Source: The Australian
Comment: It is pleasing to see that nature still provides the background to medicines, although it may not be too long before the products are isolated and ‘improved upon’ (in the pharmaceutical laboratory for reasons of increased effect, but also read patent, money… ).
But a more holistic aspect is the uncovering of the exquisite interdependency of plant and animal, and the potential impact on humans. It would seem the height of arrogance that we should try and ‘improve upon’ this?