The research, published in the November issue of the American Naturalist, is the first to document that ants bore into live trees, and it reopens a centuries-old debate on the relationship between ants and plants.
Ants and certain species of plants and trees have cozy relationships. Myrmecophytes, also knows as ant-plants, have hollow stems or roots that occur as a normal part of their development. Ant colonies often take residence in these hollows. To protect their homes, the ants patrol the area around the tree, killing insects that want to eat the plant's leaves and sometimes destroying vegetation of other plants that might compete for precious soil nutrients and sunlight. The relationship is a classic biological mutualism. The ants get a nice place to live; the trees get protection. Everybody wins.
But while researching ant-plants in the Amazonian rainforests of Peru, Douglas Yu of the University of East Anglia and Glenn Shepard of Sao Paulo University were tipped off by the local people about a strange phenomenon. The natives showed the researchers several non-myrmecophyte trees with swollen scars called galls on their trunks and branches. When the researchers cut into the galls, they found that ants had excavated tunnels into the live wood.
"Ants are superb ecosystem engineers," David Edwards the lead author of the study said, "but this is the first example of ants galling trees to make housing."
Megan Frederickson, a Harvard biologist and member of the research team, searched 1,000 square kilometers of forest and found numerous galled trees inhabited by ants, suggesting the behavior is not uncommon. The galled trees were only found on the edges of "Devil's gardens"—ant-made forest clearings that surround stands of ant-plants. It appears, the researchers say, that when the colonies fill the available space in the ant-plants, they branch out and carve new nests into neighboring trees.
The discovery reopens a debate that raged among Charles Darwin and his contemporaries about the relationship between ants and plants. Darwin believed—rightly as it turned out—the hollow spaces in ant-plants occurred as part of the plant's normal development. Since the ants did no damage to the plant, the relationship could be considered a mutualism. Botanist Richard Spruce disagreed. He believed the ants bored the hollows themselves and that the trees needed ants "like a dog needs fleas." In Spruce's view, ants are parasites.
Studies in the 1960s showed definitively that ant-plant hollows occur normally, vindicating Darwin. But this latest finding that ants do gall non-myrmecophytic trees shows that Spruce wasn't so wrong after all.
David P. Edwards, Megan E. Frederickson, Glenn H. Shepard and Douglas W. Yu, "A Plant Needs Ants like a Dog Needs Fleas: Myrmelachista schumanni Ants Gall Many Tree Species to Create Housing." The American Naturalist 174:5 (Nov. 2009).
Since its inception in 1867, the American Naturalist has maintained its position as one of the world's most renowned, peer-reviewed publications in ecology, evolution, and population and integrative biology research.
Kevin Stacey | EurekAlert!
Signaling Pathways to the Nucleus
19.03.2018 | Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg im Breisgau
In monogamous species, a compatible partner is more important than an ornamented one
19.03.2018 | Max-Planck-Institut für Ornithologie
For the first time, an interdisciplinary team from the University of Basel has succeeded in integrating artificial organelles into the cells of live zebrafish embryos. This innovative approach using artificial organelles as cellular implants offers new potential in treating a range of diseases, as the authors report in an article published in Nature Communications.
In the cells of higher organisms, organelles such as the nucleus or mitochondria perform a range of complex functions necessary for life. In the networks of...
Animal photoreceptors capture light with photopigments. Researchers from the University of Göttingen have now discovered that these photopigments fulfill an...
On 15 March, the AWI research aeroplane Polar 5 will depart for Greenland. Concentrating on the furthest northeast region of the island, an international team...
The world’s second-largest ice shelf was the destination for a Polarstern expedition that ended in Punta Arenas, Chile on 14th March 2018. Oceanographers from...
At the 2018 ILA Berlin Air Show from April 25–29, the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT is showcasing extreme high-speed Laser Material Deposition (EHLA): A video documents how for metal components that are highly loaded, EHLA has already proved itself as an alternative to hard chrome plating, which is now allowed only under special conditions.
When the EU restricted the use of hexavalent chromium compounds to special applications requiring authorization, the move prompted a rethink in the surface...
19.03.2018 | Event News
16.03.2018 | Event News
13.03.2018 | Event News
19.03.2018 | Physics and Astronomy
19.03.2018 | Materials Sciences
19.03.2018 | Event News