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Parasitic plants and snacking on green ant abdomens


Kerry Mazzotti

Parasites steal nutrients from other living things. Yesterday I caught parasitoid wasps that rob caterpillars of their nutrients and their lives. Today I learned about an inconspicuous plant that sucks the life out of other plants as its cunning survival strategy.

Five of us left in a 4WD from camp this morning bound for a sampling site near Bell Gorge. I was with a team of botanists from the WA Herbarium – Ben Anderson, Shelley James and Adrienne Markey and Annika from the Department of Parks and Wildlife. After a two-hour drive through spectacular Kimberley country, we arrived at our site. The botanists have a toolkit that includes hand lenses, secateurs, saws, bags, pickets, flagging, tape measures and botany presses. We unpacked the car and mapped out a 20 x 20 metre plot.

It's the dry season in the Kimberley and a lot of the grasses and shrubs are brown and brittle, but the site was also dotted with towering Grevilleas, orange flowers beaming against the blue sky. The botanists went to work recording all the species they could identify by sight. Once spotted, the botanists carefully collect a sample of the plant. The sample is taken back to the WA Herbarium and stored forever. It can be used for future research and as a lasting record of plants found in this area.

Dr Shelley showed me a Dodder plant. When I looked really closely I could see a tiny vine weaving its way up the dried grass. Dr Ben explained to me that Dodder is a parasitic plant, meaning it gets most of its nutrients from another plant. What I saw as a tiny vine was actually a parasitic plant slowly sucking nutrients from the grass it was twisting around! The team wanted a sample of this plant, but for accurate identification, they needed one with flowers – and this was my first task. First, among the brown, dried grass, find the patches of Dodder and among the patches of Dodder find the tiny little flowers. Searching for a specific sample in the field is like trying to complete a puzzle and just like finishing a puzzle or cracking a code, when you find the sample, it feels great! It wasn’t long before I had found the tiny little flowers and was feeling a sense of satisfaction – we had our Dodder sample complete.

Walking around outside looking closely at nature is one of my favourite things. The time passed quickly as I meandered around the site flagging different flowers to the botanists. It was the hottest part of the day when we left the site and headed to Bell Gorge for dip. Bell Gorge has the most incredible waterfall and swimming in the fresh, cool water felt amazing. But it was time to head to our final sampling site, so we quickly dried off and scrambled back over the rocks to the car.

The final site was a beautiful stream and the botanists looked for species they had not yet sampled on the trip, but the most exciting part of this site was not related to plants. Annika taught me how to eat green ants! Green ants make their nests in trees and are interesting and delicious because they don’t produce formic acid, they produce citric acid, leaving a delightful tang as you bite of their abdomens.

We packed the car back up with the tools and lots of plant samples collected throughout the day. We drove back to camp and arrived just in time for dinner. The hard work of the botanists didn’t stop there though. They are still hard at work in the lab, pressing samples, updating field notes and preparing their equipment for tomorrow.