, Volume 89, Issue 1, pp 62-68

The role of the hemiparasitic annual Rhinanthus minor in determining grassland community structure

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Summary

Rhinanthus minor (yellow-rattle) is a widespread hemiparasitic plant of grassland habitats throughout Great Britain. It is usually considered to be indicative of species-rich grassland, but in a survey of 14 habitats throughout Britain it was found that R. minor at the time of flowering normally occupied relatively low-diversity patches within areas of high diversity as determined by the number of species, Simpson's Index and the Shannon-Wiener Index. Following the death of adult plants of R. minor in the summer it was shown that the pattern of species diversity changed such that by the time R. minor germinated in the following spring the differences between the areas containing and not containing R. minor were much less distinct. A perturbation experiment in which R. minor was removed from four sites indicated that the effect of the removal of R. minor on the development of community structure over the next year was to increase species diversity on three of the sites and decrease it on the fourth. Those species which responded to the removal of R. minor by an increase in abundance were shown to be preferred hosts. All three lines of evidence point to the fact R. minor has a significant effect on the species diversity of the communities in which it grows by selectively parasitizing components of the flora and modifying the competitive relationships between plants. However, as the communities generally responded to the removal of R. minor by an increase in diversity and as the general survey indicated that R. minor is generally associated with areas of low diversity it would appear that the plants which are selectively parasitized are generally not the competitive dominants in the community.