Magazine article Natural History

The Feeding Is Mutual

Magazine article Natural History

The Feeding Is Mutual

Article excerpt

To a small tropical ant, the spore-- containing disks of a Phymatodes sinuosa fern are big orange dinner plates. Philidris (formerly known as Iridomyrmex) ants supplement their carnivorous diet by harvesting the disks, which are packed with oval sacs of oily and nutritious spores (a fern's equivalent of seeds). The fern offers the ants room as well as board. Gaining access through natural cavities in the plant, colonies of the one-eighth-inch-long insects take up residence and rear their brood in the hollow stem. In return, the ants help feed the plant by a system akin to composting.

Ant-plant reciprocity is rather common in tropical regions. In the New World, for example, some acacias play host to stinging ants that guard them by fending off larger plant-eaters. But the rather unaggressive ant above, in Bako National Park in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo, feeds rather than fights. …

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