Thursday, August 7, 2008 - 2:50 PM

OOS 22-5: Native grass-pathogen dynamics and non-native escape from disease: Andropogon virginicus and smut fungus

Janet A. Morrison, Ermal Bojdani, Brittany Graf, and Artur Romanchuk. The College of New Jersey


Andropogon virginicus is a C4 perennial grass dominating successional old fields in its native range in eastern North America. It is naturalizing on hydric soils in California, and is invasive in the Hawai’ian islands. In many eastern populations this grass is attacked by the smut fungus Sporisorium ellisii, which replaces the plant’s reproductive structures with its own teliospores. If this pathogen influences its host’s individual and population growth, then escape from the disease may promote A. virginicus invasion in the introduced range, as suggested by the enemy release hypothesis and the evolution of increased competitive ability hypothesis. Infected native populations were censused annually from 2003-2006, with measures of host and disease density in 1m2 plots, and mortality, size, infection status, and photosynthesis rates in focal plants. Multiple populations in the eastern U.S., California, and Hawai’i were sampled in 1 m belt transects for plant density and disease presence, and up to 80 collected plants per population were measured for height and mass, and examined for smut fungus. The populations were compared in two common-greenhouse experiments. One measured seed germination percentages and time to germination, and the other measured photosynthesis rates and competitive ability against a phytometer.  


In the main native population, mean plant density fluctuated across years, from 3.26-5.47 plants/m2, while mean disease frequency declined, from 29.8% to 5.9% infected plants/m2. In plots with disease present, disease was negatively correlated with plant density (2004: r = -0.50, 2005: -0.45, 2006: -0.63; all P < 0.001, with correction for spatial autocorrelation). Fully infected plants were smaller than healthy plants and produced no seeds. Although 21.2% of infected plants recovered, 70% died after two years, compared to 43% of  healthy plants. Eastern populations averaged 2.96 plants/m2. Out of 41 populations, 22 were infected. California populations are much less common, restricted to wet soils, have 2.66 plants/m2, and smut fungus was absent. In Hawai’i, A. virginicus has colonized large expanses of nearly barren lava, pasture lands, and early successional forest, especially in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. Plant density averaged 2.97 plants/m2 and smut was absent. Hawaiian populations had lowest mean germination speed and percentage, but no differences in competition or photosynthesis compared to natives. Even though smut infection has adverse effects on individual hosts and plant density, escape from this disease in the invaded range does not appear to have resulted in denser populations or more vigorous plants.