12 October 2009

First step to mutualism doesn't look so friendly

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgAnt-plant protection mutualism is a widespread and elegant species interaction. How do species strike bargain like this, requiring specialized behaviors and structures in each partner, in the first place? A new report in The American Naturalist suggests an answer: maybe ants took the initiative [$-a].

In exchange for protection from herbivores and competitors [big PDF], "myrmecophytic" host plants grow hollow structures called domatia and often produce nectar to shelter and feed a colony of ants. This mutualism is really a sort of negotiated settlement between the partners; both ants and plants do what they can to get the most out of the interaction. We have evidence in some cases that host plants cut back support for ants if there aren't any herbivores around; and, in other cases, that ants prune their host plants to prompt the growth of more domatia.



Domatium diversity: Ant domatia on Acacia (above) and Cordia nodosa (below). Photos by Alastair Rae and Russian_in_Brazil.
So it isn't entirely surprising that there might be cases where that bargain hasn't been established yet, and that's what the new paper reports. The observation turned up in connection with one of the most interesting forms of the ant-plant mutualism: the "devil's gardens" of the Amazonian rainforest. Devil's gardens are created by colonies of the ant Myrmelachista schumanni, which attacks possible competitors to its preferred host [$-a], Duroia hirsuta, leaving patches where nothing but D. hirsuta grows.

Clued in by native research assistants, the group studying the devil's garden interaction discovered that trees growing at the edge of a garden are often afflicted with swollen, distorted trunks. Cutting into the swellings, they found them riddled with passages and populated by M. schumanni. The trees in question are not known as myrmecophytes, and it's not clear that they receive any benefit from hosting ants. In fact, the authors report that ant-occupied trunks are weakened, and prone to breakage under their own weight or under heavy wind.

The paper doesn't present direct evidence that the ants create the galls, but as the authors explain, this seems likely -- M. schumanni kills its hosts' competition by injecting them with formic acid, which parallels the irritants other gall-making insects inject into their host plants. It make sense that gall-making might have started as ants' attempts to kill off trees that are too big to succumb to formic acid outright, but respond to it by growing galls like scar tissue. Furthermore -- and this is pure speculation, of course -- this looks like a first evolutionary step toward true ant-plant mutualism. Domatia may have originally evolved to redirect ants from more damaging gall-making, and since ants are naturally territorial about their nests, it might not take much behavioral change before they end up protecting their host.

References

Edwards, D., Frederickson, M., Shepard, G., & Yu, D. (2009). A plant needs ants like a dog needs fleas: Myrmelachista schumanni ants gall many tree species to create housing. The American Naturalist, 174 (5), 734-40 DOI: 10.1086/606022

Frederickson, M., Greene, M., & Gordon, D. (2005). "Devil's gardens" bedevilled by ants Nature, 437 (7058), 495-6 DOI: 10.1038/437495a

Janzen, D. (1966). Coevolution of mutualism between ants and acacias in Central America Evolution, 20 (3), 249-75 DOI: 10.2307/2406628

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