The Flipside of Littering
This year-round growth is a key to mistletoe's importance, Watson pointed out.
The plant produces flowers, berries, and leaves continuously—even during the winter, when trees and shrubs have gone bare in order to conserve energy and resources—providing a food source for foraging animals.
But fallen mistletoe leaves also serve as a key element of overall forest health, according to soon-to-be-published research.
"Weve discovered that leaf litter may be one of the key mechanisms through which mistletoe influences overall forest dynamics and diversity patterns," Watson said.
"[Leaf litter] is the main source of carbon and a whole lot of other 'raw materials' that are used by microbial communities to form soil, the engine that drives aboveground productivity and growth."
Other recent research is bolstering Watson's finds.
"I didn't particularly go there to study mistletoe, but it turned out that it was the most important story for lemur survival," he said.
During the island's wet season, the lemurs can find plenty of fruit, their preferred meal, he pointed out.
"Yet in the dry season, the trees are almost unanimously holding out and not producing any good foods," he said. "So the sifakas turn to the mistletoes ... eating a ton of their flowers, fruits, and young leaves. In ecological terms we call this a 'fallback food.'"
No one knows why mistletoe reproduces all year long, but it probably has to do with its parasitic nature, he added. Mistletoe may not experience the stress of dealing with dry soil since it leeches its water supply directly from its host.
"I think it is debatable whether [the lemurs] could survive the dry season at Tsinjoarivo [a Madagascar rain forest site] if there weren't mistletoes—they are fairly large lemurs and thus have fairly high energy requirements," Irwin said.
"As it is, sifakas already lose body mass in the dry season, so without mistletoes the stress may be too much to survive."
Janis Dickinson, a professor of natural resources at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, has meanwhile found that mistletoe is crucial for western bluebirds.
The plant provides a winter food source that can keep young males home with their parents, allowing the birds to build thriving cooperative family units, she said.
"The mistletoe is probably what gets [the bluebirds] through the cold spells when insects are not active," she added. "It provides a constant berry crop all winter long and is clumped in its distribution."
All the new findings suggest to Watson, the Australian researcher, that mistletoe could help cure certain kinds of ailing forests.
Tropical forests are probably poor candidates, since mistletoe's importance is reduced by the presence of plants with similar keystone roles, such as figs.
But for other kinds of struggling forests, managing and reintroducing mistletoe is "most definitely" a potential solution, he said.
"I have advocated this for restoring certain habitats."
McGill's Irwin agreed.
"I have read things saying that foresters in the past used to want to kill mistletoes in order to promote the health of the trees," he said, "but of course recent research shows that to be a bit stupid."
Free Email News Updates
Sign up for our Inside National Geographic newsletter. Every two weeks we'll send you our top stories and pictures (see sample).
SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES