Ants in Their Plants

By Braun, Ashley | Natural History, June 2013 | Go to article overview

Ants in Their Plants


Braun, Ashley, Natural History


The carnivorous pitcher plant Nepenthes bicalcarata grows in peat swamps low on nutrients. To satisfy its needs, the plant attracts and consumes insects, especially ants, which slip into and drown in its pitchers-jug-shaped leaves partially filled with acidic digestive fluids. Yet this ant-hungry pitcher plant has an unusual inhabitant and partner: the ant Camponotus schmitzi. This ant lives exclusively on Bornean Ν. bicalcarata, licking nectar while balancing on pitchers' slick rims and even diving into their fluids to fish out and eat entrapped prey. Researchers have discovered a paradox: the seeming thieves in fact bestow an extensive nutritional benefit-plants with C. schmitzi ants "out-flourish" those without. But how do nutrients travel from ant to plant?

Mathias Scharmann and a team of fellow insect biologists at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, and the University Brunei Darussalam, Brunei, ventured into Borneo's northern forests. First, they sampled background levels of the rarer of the two stable nitrogen isotopes, 15N, in leaves of N. bicalcarata plants, both colonized and uncolonized by C. schmitzi ants, as well as in the leaves of non-carnivorous reference plants, potential prey insects, larvae that hatch in the pitchers, pitcher plant detritus, and C. …

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