08 July 2021

The Beauty of Being a Hemiparasite

Written by: Emily Levin

The salt marsh bird’s beak (CHMAMA for short) is an endangered hemiparasite, which means that it latches onto other plants to sustain it for water and nutrients. It inserts a haustorium, a rootlike structure, to penetrate the host’s tissue stealing its resources by misdirecting the flow to its own plant body. Not only does this plant attack the host’s xylem, but it creates a negative water potential within the host causing water stress conditions. I don’t want to say that I find myself analogous to this hemiparasite, but during the first week of this internship I sure did feel like one. I had so many technical issues that I relied on anyone who would help me. In the first three days, I got locked out of my computer, denied from accessing work accounts and websites, and the list can go on. I could hardly even start my project researching the resource needs for salt marsh bird’s beak. I felt like a nuisance, like a hemiparasite, because I felt like I was creating more work for everyone around me. 

A few days ago, I decided that I wanted to see my salt marsh bird’s beak in full glory, so I drove 12 miles west to the Morro Bay estuary. Without damaging or stepping on fragile habitat, I trudged onward through the mudflats scanning the pickleweed for any signs of CHMAMA. I started to grow impatient as I saw no evidence of my species, but out of the corner of my eye I saw something new. It was so tiny and hardly noticeable that I was surprised it caught my attention. 

IMG 2535

Taken by Emily Levin 6/28/21 - Beautiful salt marsh bird’s beak found in Morro Bay, California

I am not one to believe in signs, but spotting my species felt like something special to me. I found its healthy, purple blooming flowers to be quite beautiful as it contrasted the sea of pickleweed. I felt a deeper connection to this plant. Not only was I noticing the unique beauty of its hairy, velvety body for this first time, but the tenacity of this plant amazed me. 

My past two week at Fish and Wildlife Service have felt very exciting and important to me. Although the service has already taught me so much, I must give this small and unusual plant some credit for teaching me some crucial lessons. The CHMAMA showed me the importance of relying on others for help because you cannot always be successful on your own. Benefiting from the aid of others can allow you to survive in tough environments, much like how my plant species can survive in extremely harsh, salty environments that are at the mercy of the tides.  In addition, this tenacious little plant can survive independent from a host, promote environmental heterogeneity, and enhance species coexistence in salt marshes. The salt marsh bird’s beak taught me that it is okay to be a hemiparasite because it is better than being a parasite. 

Agency: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Program: US Fish & Wildlife Service - DFP

Location: Carlsbad Fish and Wildlife Office

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