New Species of Parasitic Plant Discovered on Japanese Island

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Yakushima Island, where the unusual plants were discovered. Σ64 [CC by 3.0]/Wikimedia

An oddball new species of plant, classified as Sciaphila yakushimensis, has been discovered on the Japanese island of Yakushima that has abandoned the use of photosynthesis to instead become a parasite that feeds on fungi, reports Science Daily.

It's a twist that turns the tables on their hosts, since it's usually the fungi that feed off the nutrients in their surrounding environment. The surprising find could cause researchers to reassess the ecological value of the lowland laurel forests of Yakushima, where the new plant was discovered.

"Yakushima receives a lot of attention for its Jomon cedars, but this plant was discovered in an area where deforestation is permitted," said Suetsugu Kenji, the associate professor at Kobe University who made the finding. "The discovery of the Sciaphila yakushimensis, nurtured by the fungi and the nutrient-rich forests in which it grows, should make us reaffirm the value of Yakushima's lowland primeval forests."

Yakushima is a relatively small subtropical island — smaller than the Hawaiian island of Kauai — located off the southern coast of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's main islands. The majority of the island is within the borders of the Kirishima-Yaku National Park, and its forests inspired the wooded setting in the film "Princess Mononoke."

It's possible that the new species eluded detection until now because of its resemblance to another parasitic plant species, Sciaphila japonica, though both plants have distinctly colored flowers. Sciaphila yakushimensis is also quite small, and it only appears above ground when in flower or in fruit, which makes the plant's full range difficult to gauge.

Plants that parasitize fungi are called mycoheterotrophic and are typically classified as epiparasites because they feed off fungi that in turn feed off normal photosynthesizing plants. Their role in this unusual parasitic loop has also earned them the classification of "cheaters," though of course it's all just a part of the natural cycle of life.