Ants Clean Plants

May 29, 2013, 10:08 p.m.

No one likes mosquitoes, not even carnivorous pitcher plants in Borneo. The blood-suckers’ larvae steal nutrients from the pitcher plants’ dead-bug-filled belly.

Ants to the rescue! One species of ant hunts the mosquito larvae and keeps the pitcher plant (Nepenthes bicalcarata) clean. A team from the University of Cambridge and the University Brunei Darussalam discovered that when symbiotic colonies of Camponotus schmitzi ants inhabit pitcher plants, the vegetation receives more growth-fueling nitrogen.

The ants hunt mosquito larvae growing in the liquid of the plant’ pitcher. Those malevolent mosquitoes would have otherwise poached some of the nutrients from the slowly dissolving insects trapped in the pitcher plant’s vegetative vessel.

Beyond killing poachers, the ants also feed the pitcher plant with their feces, thereby giving the flora a further bump of fertilizer. Plus, the ants clean the plants, which improves the pitcher plants’ nutrient uptake.

“Kneeling down in the swamp amidst huge pitcher plants in a Bornean rainforest, it was a truly jaw-dropping experience when we first noticed how very aggressive and skilled the Camponotus schmitzi ants were in underwater hunting: it was a mosquito massacre!” said study co-author Mathias  Scharmann in a press release.

“Later, when we discovered that the ants’ droppings are returned to the plant, it became clear that this unique behavior could actually play an important role in the complex relationship of the pitcher plant with the ants.”

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