A newly discovered species of parasitic plant on a Japanese island has abandoned photosynthesis and instead lives off fungi for nutrients.

Kenji Suetsugu, a Kobe University associate professor, made the discovery on the subtropical island Yakushima, found off the southern coast of Kyushu. He named it Sciaphila yakushimensis based on the place when it was found.

The astounding part of the discovery is that this mycoheterotrophic plant does not use photosynthesis, instead living as a parasite and exploiting fungi as nutrient source. Note, though, that these plants are small and only emerge above the ground when flowering or in fruit-bearing season, limiting the data on their exact nature.

Suetsugu is active in the documentation of Japanese mycoheterotrophic plants' classification and distribution. He discovered the new species October last year while surveying Yakushima's lowland laurel forests.

Based on his work - a collaborative one conducted with other Japanese researchers - the 5-centimeter-long plant is a close kin of the Sciaphila japonica belonging to the Triuridaceae family. However, the team managed to establish that it was a separate species based on its dark purple above-ground parts, and the filament of the male flower no higher than the anther. The female flower, too, is shaped like a club and boasts of multiple papillae.

Most plants team up with fungi and form a mycorrhiza, a symbiotic relationship where roots offer sugars to the fungi, which in turn provide water and minerals to the plants. The newly discovered Sciaphila yakushimensis is among those that cheat this process and take stuff without giving anything back in return.

The discovery of a fungi-feeding plant species is said to promote the hidden web of symbiotic fungus-root relationships - or deviations from the system, like what the parasitic plant demonstrated - in the island's primeval forests.

Suetsugu emphasized that these are "extremely rare" parasitic plants that would not be able to survive without a healthy forest thriving from its rich fungal networks that are concealed from the human eye.

"The discovery of the Sciaphila yakushimensis, nurtured by the fungi and the nutrient-rich forests in which it grows, should make us reaffirm the value of Yakushima's lowland primeval forests," he adds.

The findings were published Feb. 20 in the Journal of Japanese Botany.

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