For many of us, mistletoe is known simply as a Christmas decoration or as part of a kissing rite at festive parties.
But beyond these cultural traditions, scientific research has shown that mistletoe plant species play an important role in boosting biodiversity and ecosystem health in woodland ecosystems.
Research student Melinda Cook from the UTS School of Life Sciences is currently researching the fascinating foraging behaviours of birds in Australian woodlands. Her research is revealing the complex ways in which Australian mistletoe plants and local woodland birds interact.
“My research seeks to clarify how seed-dispersing birds find fruiting mistletoe plants and what influences the decisions they make to visit one mistletoe over another,” Ms Cook said.
Ms Cook’s research is creating new knowledge about bird foraging behaviour and its potential impacts on mistletoe distribution in Australian woodlands. Her research findings will have useful applications for woodland management in Australia.
“Although viewed by some as harmful plant parasites, mistletoe is in fact a keystone resource in woodland ecosystems, where so many woodland birds are declining due to a range of factors including habitat clearing,” she said.
“My research will be valuable to conservation, revegetation and bird monitoring programs, by revealing the interactions between the keystone mistletoes and the birds that spread their seeds.”
In biology, the term “mistletoe” refers to a diverse group of parasitic or hemi-parasitic plants, which grow on the branches of host trees and shrubs. Mistletoes generally produce single-seeded, brightly coloured berries as their fruit. The berries attract birds, which swallow and disperse the seeds on branches throughout the forest.
In Australia, many mistletoe species have evolved the remarkable ability to mimic the foliage of their hosts. This “host-mimicry” has attracted the interest of the scientific community in Australia for decades.
“I’m interested in finding out how host-mimicry in Australian mistletoes affects the foraging behaviour of birds,” Ms Cook said. “I’m investigating why mistletoe foliage is often cryptic in the host tree foliage and whether birds have developed a particular search image to find it.”
Ms Cook’s field experiments have so far involved cutting mistletoe from their original host trees and attaching them to other trees in the forest. She has spent hundreds of hours out in the field with binoculars, watching birds visiting these moved mistletoes.
“Through this behavioural observation, I can begin to paint a picture of how the birds forage and the choices they make,” she said.