Plant and Soil

, Volume 437, Issue 1–2, pp 159–177 | Cite as

Strong host specificity of a root hemi-parasite (Santalum acuminatum) limits its local distribution: beggars can be choosers

  • Francis J. NgeEmail author
  • Kosala Ranathunge
  • Lukasz Kotula
  • Gregory R. Cawthray
  • Hans Lambers
Regular Article



Santalum acuminatum (quandong) is a root hemi-parasite with a very wide distribution across southern Australia. Despite its very wide distribution, along the Jurien Bay chronosequence, it only occurs on the young Quindalup dunes, and it is absent on older dunes. The soils and local vegetation community change across the 10 km chronosequence, with higher species diversity correlated with lower soil phosphorus (P) levels. Here, we aimed to test whether the distribution of quandong on the dune systems can be explained by different neighbours (potential hosts) or different soil P concentrations across the chronosequence.


Quandongs were grown in pots with 18 potential hosts for a year at three P levels, reflecting conditions across the chronosequence. Hemi-parasite growth and neighbour response were measured through the assessment of biomass, root mass ratios, haustorial size and frequency, δ15N and δ13C isotope signatures, as well as amino acid composition of xylem sap.


Effects of neighbour species on the growth of quandongs were stronger when they were paired with Acacia saligna than when grown with other legumes and non-legumes, indicating strong host specificity. Quandong growth with all other species was significantly less than when grown with A. saligna or without a host, indicating strong competition with a conspecific neighbour. Soil P concentration had little effect on quandong growth.


Host specificity and competition from non-hosts comprise main drivers for the distribution of quandong across the Jurien Bay chronosequence, rather than soil P availability. Our results show the importance of host specificity and how it may restrict the distribution of hemi-parasitic plants in different plant communities along a steep ecological gradient.


Haustoria Plant hemi-parasite Parasite-host interactions Parasite ecology Quandong Root hemi-parasite Santalum acuminatum Santalaceae 



We thank Walter and Adelphe King for providing us with quandong seeds from their property in York, as well as Nancy Scade for plants used in our experiments. We also thank Calum Irvine for assistance in setting up the experiment, and Jia Leng Tee, Yi Ting Lee, Daniel Beeck, and Azrul Azmi for their assistance in the glasshouse. We also acknowledge Craig Liddicoat for providing the continent-wide pH dataset and map. The authors acknowledge use of the Australian Microscopy & Microanalysis Research Facility at the Centre for Microscopy, Characterisation & Analysis, The University of Western Australia, a facility funded by the University, State and Commonwealth Governments. Finally, we thank the anonymous reviewers for their valuable feedback.

Author contribution

F.N, G.C and H. L. conceived the ideas and designed the study, F.N. carried out the experiments and generated the data. K.R. and L.K. undertook the anatomical studies. G.C. undertook the amino acid analyses. F.N. and H.L. analysed the data, and F.N., H.L., K.R., L.K. and G.C. wrote the manuscript. All authors contributed critically to the drafts and gave final approval for publication.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.

Supplementary material

11104_2019_3966_MOESM1_ESM.docx (92 kb)
ESM 1 Summary statistics of analyses and supplementary figures. (DOCX 91.6 kb)
11104_2019_3966_MOESM2_ESM.docx (22 kb)
ESM 2 Additional details on supplementary methodology and results. (DOCX 22.4 kb)


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Biological SciencesUniversity of Western AustraliaCrawleyAustralia
  2. 2.School of Biological Sciences, Faculty of ScienceThe University of AdelaideAdelaideAustralia
  3. 3.School of Agriculture and EnvironmentUniversity of Western AustraliaCrawleyAustralia

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