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Reviving restorations: Can native parasitic plants bring better balance to tallgrass prairies?

Raised of $3,400 Goal
Funded on 11/12/16
Successfully Funded
  • $3,400
  • 100%
  • Funded
    on 11/12/16

About This Project

Once common, prairies are now among the most threatened of ecosystems. Restoration of prairies without intense management is challenging. Introducing native parasitic plants can reduce aggressive species but broader effects of hemiparasites (green parasitic plants) on invasions and productivity are unknown. Our goal is to evaluate species composition and environmental factors in prairies with native hemiparasites to understand these effects and provide critical insights to land managers.

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What is the context of this research?

Eastern tallgrass prairie once seemed limitless, but farming and development have devastated this ecosystem. In Illinois, high-quality prairie occupies <1% of the former area. In every prairie state, managers are working to revive this ecosystem.

Restoration of fully functioning communities requires manpower and resources. Because a species-rich community is a hallmark of successful restoration, strategies for limiting aggressive species that suppress desirable species are needed. Hemiparasites (green parasitic plants) extract water and minerals from neighbors' vascular systems, reducing host growth. Dominant species are the most strongly affected. Adding native hemiparasites to suppress dominant species and to increase species diversity may thus benefit restoration.

What is the significance of this project?

Prairies are complex. Plants interact above and below ground with other plants, microbes, and animals. If hemiparasites improve balance on a prairie, as defined by site managers, time and effort costs may be reduced and success of restoration increased. But, the idea of using hemiparasites as "tools" comes from anecdotes or studies of non-prairie systems. Greater diversity may result if hemiparasites facilitate invasions by unwanted non-native species.

Humans have exacerbated imbalance among species when we have introduced a new player to a community. Land managers need to know if native hemiparasites can be used to limit other species and to enhance prairie diversity. Thus, we need to understand the full range of direct and indirect effects of hemiparasites in prairies.

What are the goals of the project?

To understand the role hemiparasites play in prairie communities and their potential to aid in prairie management we will conduct vegetation surveys of prairies with different characteristics, analyze environmental data (light, soil nutrients), and model interactions. Our goal is to answer these questions: Are these green parasites associated with greater numbers and abundances of native species? Where hemiparasites are abundant, are exotic species more common? Do hemiparasites have stronger effects in prairies where host plants are limited by nutrients? Hemiparasites debilitate hosts, and so we also wonder how much productivity declines as hemiparasite abundance increases. This effect of hemiparasites is not trivial if large-herbivore grazing is an essential part of management plans.


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We initiated this project in 2016 with a grant from the Illinois Native Plant Society-Central Chapter and Illinois State University. That project suggested patterns in the effects of hemiparasites in prairie communities. Structural equation modeling using these preliminary data indicated the need for expanded samples from more varied sites to estimate reciprocal effects of the hemiparasite and its victims, the reciprocal competitive interactions between community members, and to clarify direct and indirect links among hemiparasites, invasive exotic species, and native species. The requested funds will support a graduate student for two months and pay additional field hands. With this funding the student should be able to leverage additional money for covering travel and supplies to conduct her thesis research associated with this project. While we are also seeking other support for more comprehensive research, this project focuses on management implications.

Endorsed by

I strongly endorse this research project. Both investigators are highly qualified to carry out the proposed research, and they have experience working with parasitic native plants including Pedicularis canadensis. The results of the study will be helpful to persons managing or restoring native prairies. In addition, the use of native parasitic prairie plants to control especially aggressive species is a more environmentally suitable method of controlling these species than current methods that include the use of herbicide.
In my 40 years of observing remnants of original prairie in the upper Midwest, it appears to me that native hemi-parasitic plants are likely playing a key role in fostering a rich diversity of plants in these ecosystems. Yet this is not well documented or understood. I believe the results of this proposed research will greatly aid managers in the care and recovery of our native prairies.
Managing the Fermilab prairie plantings, we have observed effects of hemiparasitic plants on dominant species but do not have the resources to conduct formal experiments. Many prairie managers throughout the Midwest struggle with older plantings that are dominated by a few species, particularly warm-season grasses. We believe the effects of hemiparasites contribute to a competitive release by dominants and increase niche space for less-competitive, forbs, sedges and grasses. I am very interested in this proposed project and endorse it fully.

Meet the Team

Vickie Borowicz
Vickie Borowicz
Assistant Professor of Plant Ecology


School of Biological Sciences, Illinois State University
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Steven Juliano
Steven Juliano
Distinguished Professor of Ecology


School of Biological Sciences, Illinois State University
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Team Bio

We are a married couple who first collaborated on projects as graduate students. Vickie studies parasitic plants and above/belowground interactions, especially in prairies. As a community ecologist, Steve provides expertise in statistics, modeling, and theory of species interactions. Both of us direct graduate students' research projects and welcome undergraduate research students into our respective labs.

Vickie Borowicz

I am a community ecologist interested in the ecology of symbioses, especially those involving parasitic plants in prairies. Physically intimate associations between species, such as between a parasitic plant and host, can alter a host plant's responses to enemies, and produce unanticipated effects on communities. The management implications of these interactions are intriguing.

I received a B.S. from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, and subsequently a M.S. in Zoology and Ph.D. in Ecology from Penn State. Illinois State University has been my academic home since 1986, when I started as adjunct researcher and occasional non-tenure-track instructor. In 2013 I was appointed assistant professor.

Steven Juliano

My work as an ecologist focuses on species interactions, including primarily interspecific competition and predation, and how they affect populations and communities. Much of my work is with insects, primarily mosquitoes. This project on hemiparasite effects in prairies is an opportunity for me to investigate a different sort of inter-species interaction, and to apply novel statistical approaches to these questions.

Besides ecological interactions, my research interests include behavioral ecology, and application of mathematical and statistical tools to biological questions.

Academic history

BA Biology, Kalamazoo College, Kalamazoo MI

MS Entomology, Cornell University, Ithaca NY

PhD Zoology (Minor Statistics), Pennsylvania State University, University Pk. PA

Post Doctoral Research, Ecology, York University, York, UK

Additional Information

Pedicularis canadensis

Project Backers

  • 26Backers
  • 100%Funded
  • $3,400Total Donations
  • $125.93Average Donation
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