Get access

Mistletoe macroecology: spatial patterns in species diversity and host use across Australia




Mistletoes are parasitic plants, the spatial distributions of which are poorly understood on macroecological scales. Because of their highly unusual life history, investigating mistletoe macroecology may provide new insight into broad-scale patterns in species distributions. We collated data on the spatial distribution and host use of 65 species of Loranthaceous mistletoes across the continent of Australia, and tested two predictions. First, we predicted mistletoe diversity would be unrelated to productivity (i.e. evapotranspiration and precipitation), as the parasitic lifestyle might relax environmental constraints on their distributions. Second, we predicted that mistletoe host ranges (number of infected host species) would increase in areas with more potential host species. The basis of this prediction is that greater host generality is likely to evolve in regions with greater host diversity because of greater unpredictability in encounter rates with particular host species. Conversely, in regions with fewer potential hosts, randomly dispersing mistletoe propagules are likely to repeatedly encounter particular host species, thus favouring the evolution of host specialization. The results were generally consistent with these predictions. Mistletoe diversity across Australia was weakly associated with environmental conditions, whereas mistletoe host ranges increased significantly with total plant diversity. Macroecological patterns in mistletoes are unusual. In contrast to non-parasitic plants, mistletoe diversity is poorly correlated with productivity. Host ranges varied predictably across Australia, providing the first quantitative support for the hypothesis that mistletoes in diverse regions tend to be host generalists, whereas mistletoes in depauperate regions tend to be host specialists. © 2012 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2012, 106, 459–468.