Hemiparasitic plant impacts animal and plant communities across four trophic levels

Susan E Hartley, J. P. Green, F. P. Massey, M. C P Press, A. J A Stewart, E. A. John

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Understanding the impact of species on community structure is a fundamental question in ecology. There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that both subdominant species and parasites can have disproportionately large effects on other organisms. Here we report those impacts for a species that is both subdominant and parasitic, the hemiparasite Rhinanthus minor. While the impact of parasitic angiosperms on their hosts and, to a lesser degree, coexisting plant species, has been well characterized, much less is known about their effects on higher trophic levels. We experimentally manipulated field densities of the hemiparasite Rhinanthus minor in a species-rich grassland, comparing the plant and invertebrate communities in plots where it was removed, present at natural densities, or present at enhanced densities. Plots with natural and enhanced densities of R. minor had lower plant biomass than plots without the hemiparasite, but enhanced densities almost doubled the abundance of invertebrates within the plots across all trophic levels, with effects evident in herbivores, predators, and detritivores. The hemiparasite R. minor, despite being a subdominant and transient component within plant communities that it inhabits, has profound effects on four different trophic levels. These effects persist beyond the life of the hemiparasite, emphasizing its role as a keystone species in grassland communities.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2408-2416
Number of pages9
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2015


  • Abundance
  • Diversity
  • Grassland
  • Hemiparasite
  • Herbivore
  • Indirect interaction
  • Keystone species
  • Rhinanthus minor
  • Species richness

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