The Plant That Time Forgot (Welwitschia mirabilis)

(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

Common Name: Welwitschia mirabilis

A.K.A.: Welwitschia

Vital Stats:

  • Welwitschia is a gymnosperm, like pines or firs, and thus reproduces via male and female cones
  • Considered a “living fossil”
  • Named after one of its discoverers, Austrian botanist Friedrich Welwitsch
  • In mature specimens, the woody stem can grow up to one metre (3.3’) across

Found: In the Namib desert, along the west coast of Namibia and Angola

It Does What?!

Restricted to a tiny, arid swath of African desert, Welwitschia mirabilis represents the last remaining species of a very unusual lineage of plants. Close relatives met with extinction over the aeons, while welwitschia, tucked away in its remote and harsh desert range with little competition, just kept going. The fact that the species is alone, not just in its genus, but also in its family and order (the two ranks above genus in plant systematics), speaks to just how distantly related to any other living plant it is. For the sake of comparison, the Rosales, the order to which roses, apples, and pears belong, contains around 7700 species in 9 families and 260 genera. So original and captivating is welwitschia among plants that it has been the subject of more than 250 scientific articles since it was first described in 1863.

A mere infant. But probably still older than you are.
(Via: Lizworld.com)

So what makes this thing so weird? Well, plants typically have what’s called an apical meristem at the tips of their stems and/or branches. You can think of this as a clump of stem cells that keeps dividing, throwing off new leaves and buds in its wake. If you cut off the apical meristem, the plant must either develop a new one elsewhere, or stop producing new tissue.

In welwitschia, this isn’t the case. At the beginning of the plant’s life, the apical meristem produces just two leaves, and then dies. The plant will never grow another leaf, which is much more surprising when you consider that it may well live for more than a thousand years. How do you get through a millennium with only two leaves?! The answer is, these aren’t ordinary leaves. Uniquely, welwitschia’s two strap-like leaves have a band of meristematic tissue built into their base, which means they can continue to elongate outward indefinitely. The leaves will continue to grow at a rate of around half a millimetre (0.02”) per day for as long as the plant lives. If you’re thinking that this must mean leaves that are several hundred metres long, unfortunately, no, they aren’t. The leaves are abraded away by sand storms and eaten by passing animals. Even in the best case scenario, the cells at the leaf tips have a maximum lifetime of about ten years (still pretty good for a leaf…). What’s more, the leaves tend to get frayed and split over time, and end up looking like a lot more than just two leaves. Despite all the punishment, though, each leaf can reach a length of up to four metres (13’), giving a mature welwitschia a width of up to eight metres (26’) across.

Welwitschia’s answer to the pinecone.
(Image by Friedrich A. Lohmuller)

As you might expect from a long-lived relic of the past, there aren’t a lot of these plants around. For once, this has less to do with human disturbance than natural circumstances. Over millions of years, the range where welwitschia grows has dried out considerably, and in fact continues to get drier even now. Today, the plant relies largely on fog to meet its water needs, restricting its range to a thin strip of desert coastline where fogs occur regularly. Unlike cactuses or succulents, welwitschia has never evolved the ability to store water. Also problematic is a fungus, Aspergillus niger, which frequently infects and destroys germinating seeds. These factors together can mean that a welwitschia colony can sometimes go many years without successfully reproducing.

And of course, no threatened species would be complete without some human interference. In recent decades, unscrupulous collectors have removed plants from already small breeding populations, making it even more difficult to sustain their numbers. Interestingly, it’s noted in Wikipedia that plants in Angola are actually better protected from collecting than those in Namibia due to the higher concentration of landmines there.

So… landmines: bad for humans, good for endangered plants.

You think you have problems with split ends?
(Via: Natural History Museum)

Says Who?

  • The Gymnosperm Database
  • Dilcher et al. (2005) American Journal of Botany 92(8):1294-1310
  • Henschel & Seely (2000) Plant Ecology 150:7-26
  • Jacobson & Lester (2003) Journal of Heredity 94(3):212-217
  • Rodin (1958) American Journal of Botany 45(2):96-103
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Killing Me Softly, or, The Fatal Embrace of the Strangler Fig

(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

Common Name: Strangler Figs

A.K.A.: Ficus species

Vital Stats:

  • There are around 800 sp. of figs, over half of which are hemi-epiphytes, like stranglers
  • Around 10% of all vascular plants are epiphytes (about 25,000 species)
  • The trees which produce the figs we eat are terrestrial, and do not grow in other trees

Found: Tropical forests of Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Australia

It Does What?!

What does it take to squeeze the life out of a full-grown tree? A lot of time and some very long roots, apparently. Many parasites eventually bring about the untimely death of their hosts, but few do it as slowly and as insidiously as the strangler fig.

Stranglers begin life as a tiny seed that leaves the back end of a bird and happens to land on a tree branch high in the rainforest canopy. The seed germinates, and the young fig begins to grow as an aerial plant, or epiphyte, taking its moisture from the air and its nutrients from the leaf litter on its branch. Thousands of plant species, including most orchids, grow in this manner. But then an odd thing begins to happen. The seedling produces a single long root. Very long. From tens of metres up in the canopy, this root grows all the way down to the ground. Many young stranglers will die before their questing root reaches the earth, but for those that make it, a connection is formed with the soil through which water and nutrients can be extracted. From this point on the great, towering giant which holds this tiny little interloper is in mortal danger.

The strangler fig, playing “harmless epiphyte.”
(Screenshot from The Private Life of Plants, BBC)

A secure connection to the soil allows the fig to speed up its growth and to begin sending more and more roots earthward. Rather than dropping straight down, like the initial root, these later organs will twine around the bark of the host tree. At first, the roots are tiny, like mere vines crawling over the host trunk. Over time, however, they thicken, covering more and more of the trunk’s surface. Where they touch or overlap, the roots actually fuse together, forming a mesh over the surface of the bark. Up above, the stem of the strangler is growing as well. It rises through and above the host branches, soaking up the light and leaving the other tree shaded and starved for energy.

In fact, this is a war fought on two fronts. As the starving host tree struggles to gather light energy to send downward from the leaves, it is also increasingly unable to bring water up from its roots. This is because the tree’s trunk continues to expand even as the strangler’s grip grows tighter around it. These opposing forces effectively girdle the tree, crushing the vascular tissues that carry moisture from the soil. Eventually, the battle is lost and the tree dies. Fortunately for the fig, its major investments in root growth have paid off – the dead host tree does not fall, taking the strangler with it. Instead, it simply rots where it stands. Finally, many years after its arrival on the scene, the strangler fig has achieved independence. It is now a free-standing tree, completely hollow and supported by its interwoven lattice of aerial roots.

The first root finds the ground.
(Screenshot from The Private Life of Plants, BBC)

So what happens when more than one strangler fig seed lands on a particular tree? Something quite unique… the roots of the different individuals fuse and form an organism which is indistinguishable from a single tree, except by molecular testing. These are what biologists refer to as ‘genetic mosaics.’ What’s more, the individuals actually begin to act like a single tree. You see, figs typically have staggered flowering times, such that it is unlikely for numerous trees in a small area to be in bloom at the same time. This helps in keeping their wasp symbionts well nourished. Once trees fuse, however, they seem to become physiologically linked as well, with researchers reporting that they bloom as a single individual.

The most hurricane-proof tree ever.
(Screenshot from The Private Life of Plants, BBC)

[Fun Fact: Some strangler fig species have very high growth rates, and huge individuals have actually been found engulfing abandoned buildings in the tropics.]

Says Who?

  • Harrison (2006) Journal of Tropical Ecology 22(4): 477-480
  • Perry & Merschel (1987) Smithsonian 17: 72-79
  • Schmidt & Tracey (2006) Functional Plant Biology 33: 465-475
  • Thomson et al. (1991) Science 254: 1214-1216
Don’t meditate under strangler figs.
(Via: Flickr, by vincenzooli)

The Bloodhounds of the Plant World (Cuscuta sp.)

(Via: Marine Science)

Common Names: Dodder, Goldthread, Witch’s Shoelaces

A.K.A.: Genus Cuscuta

Vital Stats:

  • Approximately 200 species
  • Part of the Convolvulaceae family, which includes morning glory and sweet potato
  • Only 15-20 species are considered to be problematic crop parasites

Found: Throughout temperate and tropical parts of the world

It Does What?!

We’ve discussed a few parasites on this blog already, and they’ve all been pretty typical of what comes to mind when we think of parasitic organisms- tiny, malignant little creatures that invade the host’s body, steal its resources, and, in some cases, eat its tongue. But when we think ‘parasite,’ we don’t usually think ‘plant.’ As it turns out, there are an estimated 4500 parasitic species just among the angiosperms, or flowering plants. Among them, dodders have to be one of the strangest.

Found nearly throughout the world, these vine-like plants begin as tiny seeds that germinate late in the spring or summer, after their potential host plants have established themselves. The young seedling has no functional roots and little or no ability to photosynthesize, so initially, it must make do with what little nutrition was stored in its seed. This isn’t much, so the plant has only a few days to a week to reach a host before it dies. To better its chances, the dodder stem swings around in a helicopter-like fashion as it grows, trying to hit something useful.

Much more impressive is the plant’s other method of finding suitable hosts- a sense of smell. Recent research has found that, uniquely among plants, the dodder can actually detect odours given off by surrounding plants and grow towards them. In experiments, the seedlings were found to grow toward the scent of a tomato, even if no actual plant was present. What’s more, they are capable of showing a preference among hosts. Presented with both tomato plants, which make excellent hosts, and wheat plants, which make poor hosts, seedlings were found to grow toward the aroma of tomatoes much more often. Like herbivores, they can use scent to forage amongst a variety of species for their preferred prey.

Smells like lunch… even to other plants.
(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

Once a host plant is found, the dodder begins to twine itself around the stem and to form haustoria (singular: haustorium). These are like tiny tap roots that pierce the host’s stem and actually push between the living cells inside until they reach the vascular system. Once there, the haustoria enter both the xylem (where water and minerals move upward from the roots) and the phloem (where sugars from photosynthesis move around the plant). From these two sources, the dodder receives all its nutrients and water, freeing it from any need for a root system, or even a connection to the soil. And since it doesn’t need to capture solar energy, all green pigment fades from the parasite, and it turns a distinctive yellow or red colour. Leaves aren’t necessary either, which is why the plant is essentially nothing but stem, explaining its common name of “witch’s shoelaces.”

Not what you want to see when you head out to weed the garden.
(Via: County of Los Angeles)

Once it gets comfortable on its new host, the dodder can grow at a rate of several centimetres a day (impressive for a plant) and produce stems of a kilometre or more in length, quickly overrunning an area. It can also attach itself to additional hosts – hundreds, in fact – which is problematic, because at this point it becomes the plant equivalent of a dirty shared needle. Since the vasculature of the hosts is connected, any virus present in one host can be freely transferred to any other. This ability, coupled with its affinity for potatoes, tomatoes, tobacco, and several other important crops, makes dodder a major nuisance for many farmers. And since it’s able to regenerate from just a single, tiny haustorium left in a host plant, it’s really hard to get rid of. There’s always a flip side, though; in some ecosystems, dodder can actually maintain biodiversity by preferentially parasitising the more competitive plants, allowing the weaker ones to survive. It seems dodder may also be the Robin Hood of the plant world.

[Extra Credit: Here’s a video showing how dodder can completely take over a group of nettle plants, complete with ominous soundtrack. Narrated by the fantastic Sir David Attenborough.]

Says Who?

  • Costea (2007-2012) Digital Atlas of Cuscuta (Convolvulaceae). Wilfred Laurier University Herbarium, Ontario, Canada
  • Furuhashi et al. (2011) Journal of Plant Interactions 6(4): 207-219
  • Hosford (1967) Botanical Review 33(4): 387-406
  • Pennisi (2006) Science 313: 1867
  • Runyon et al. (2006) Science 313:1964-1967

    Cuscuta: 1, Acacia: 0
    (Via: Wikimedia Commons)

Missing Carpels & the Building Blocks of Science

(Photo by: Domingos Cardoso)

Common Name: Amarelão (Brazil), Grapia (Argentina), Khare Khara (Bolivia)

A.K.A.: Apuleia leiocarpa

Vital Stats:

  • Once considered a genus of three different species, now collapsed down to one by taxonomists
  • The only trimerous (three-parted) flower in the whole legume family
  • Male flowers grow an extra stamen in place of the missing carpel

Found: In the rainforests of central South America

It Does What?!

Nothing quite as bizarre as our usual subjects, actually, but stick with me here. This week, I’m attending the annual conference of the American Society of Plant Taxonomists in Columbus, Ohio. I’ll be giving a talk on some of my research dealing with Apuleia and the development of its flowers. I thought I’d take this week to share some of that research here, and to try to make it interesting for people who aren’t into obsessing over obscure plants. If you still find this entry painfully tedious, though, rest assured, we’ll be back to freaks and oddities next week.

Apuleia leiocarpa is part of the legume family, which, if you’re from a temperate part of the world, brings to mind little annuals like beans and peas and clover. In the tropics, though, legumes are just as often towering trees of the rainforest canopy (like Apuleia) or scraggy shrubs of arid grasslands (such as Acacia). Most of the nearly 20,000 species of legumes have flowers with the same basic groundplan: 5 sepals, 5 petals, 10 stamens (the male organs), and a single carpel (where the fruit and seeds form). There are closely related chunks of the family, though, in which some of these floral organs have been lost over the course of evolution. (Now, ‘lost’ can mean two things; either the organ starts to grow and is suppressed before it finishes developing, or it just never forms at all. To the naked eye, these two kinds of loss look exactly the same. I’ll come back to this later.) Apuleia is one such legume- it has entirely lost two of its sepals, two of its petals, and most of its stamens, making for a very simplified flower.

The Hermaphodite (‘Normal’) Flower
S=sepal, P=petal, A=anther/stamen, C=carpel, St=stigma

What’s more, it now forms two different types of flower (called ‘morphs’). If you were to look closely at a flowering branch on one of these trees, you would see that the vast majority of the flowers were male-only, having no carpel with which to form fruit. Only every fourth or fifth flower would be the hermaphrodite type that we think of as a ‘normal’ flower. Botanists refer to this type of plant as being andromonoecious (pronounced “an-dro-mon-ee-shus”). So why would a tree evolve to become andromonoecious? There are a couple of different theories, based on two different ways that the male-only flowers can be produced.

In the first and most common type of andromonoecy, all the flowers on the plant begin as normal hermaphrodites. There are flowers of all different ages, so while some are beginning to open, others haven’t finished forming yet. Pollination starts on the earlier flowers, and the plant detects that it has far more ovaries (future seeds) than it’s going to need. Maybe the soil isn’t providing enough nutrition to produce all those potential fruits, or maybe there’s a drought in progress. So, according to its needs, the tree simply suppresses the development of the carpels in the younger flowers before they have time to mature, leaving parts of each branch with hermaphrodite flowers and parts with male flowers.

The Male-Only Flower
S=sepal, P=petal (both removed)
Arrow= where the carpel would have been

In scenario two, some flowers never develop carpels; they are male-only from the time they are first formed. This type of andromonoecy is thought to occur because the tree requires large amounts of pollen to reproduce successfully (perhaps the species is wind pollinated and individuals tend to be far apart, for example), and it’s “cheaper” to produce male flowers than hermaphrodites. In this situation, we don’t see the pattern of younger versus older flowers with respect to which ones are male.

That white asterisk in the very middle shows the hole through which the carpel would have emerged. It’s just a small, empty cavity in the male flower.

So which type of andromonoecy does Apuleia have? In order to find out, a colleague and I studied pressed herbarium specimens as well as flowers preserved in alcohol. The flowers, we dissected and viewed under an incredibly powerful microscope called a scanning electron microscope, which allowed us to see minute details, such as where a suppressed carpel might have been. In the end, we found that male Apuleia flowers show no sight of having ever developed a carpel. We also noticed that the hermaphrodite flowers always occurred symmetrically, right in the centre of a group of male flowers, a pattern that we wouldn’t see if the andromonoecy was environmentally influenced.

So in the end, we’re able to say that in this species, the different floral morphs probably arose in evolution due to an increased need for pollen, rather than as a control on fruit production. Groundbreaking… right? Well, maybe not, but obscure little discoveries like this are the building blocks for the big important breakthroughs we read about in the news. If you want to make something huge, you need a good foundation to start from.

Now imagine spending three hours of your life staring at this.
Science is so glamourous.

Says Who?

  • Beavon & Chapman (2011) Plant Systematics and Evolution 296: 217-224
  • de Sousa et al. (2010) Kew Bulletin 65: 225-232
  • Gibbs et al. (1999) Plant Biology 1: 665-669
  • Spalik (1991) Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 42: 325-336
  • Zimmerman et al. (In Press) International Journal of Plant Sciences

EVOLUTION TAG TEAM, Part 2: Sex & the Synconium

The second in an ongoing series of biology’s greatest duos. (Check out Parts One and Three)

(Via: Mastering Horticulture)

Common Name (Plants): Fig Trees

  • A.K.A.: Genus Ficus

Common Name (Wasps): Fig Wasps

  • A.K.A.: Family Agaonidae

Vital Stats:

  • Approximately 800 species of figs
  • Most are trees, but some are shrubs and vines
  • Approximately 640 species (20 genera) of fig wasps
  • All are obligate pollinators of figs

Found: Throughout the Tropics

It Does What?!

Snacked on any Fig Newtons lately? Tasty, right? Like the ad says, “A cookie is just a cookie, but a Newton is fruit and cake.”  …And wasps.

They must have run out of space on the package for that last part.

Before you toss out your favourite teatime treat, I should point out that without those wasps, the figs themselves wouldn’t exist. [Personally, I love Fig Newtons and will eat them regardless of any insects present.] This plant-insect pairing actually represents one of the most stable symbioses out there, with evidence suggesting it has existed for over 65 million years.

Now with 10% more Wings
(Via: Wikipedia)

While it’s not entirely clear how this arrangement evolved in the first place, fig trees produce a unique structure called a synconium, in which the flowers are actually inside the part we think of as the fruit. This synconium, which can contain up to 7000 flowers, depending on the fig species, has a tiny hole at the tip called an ostiole. In order for the flowers to be pollinated and the fruit to grow, a female wasp must squeeze through that hole, often losing her wings and antennae in the process, and distribute pollen that she carries in a sac on her abdomen. As she does so, she also uses her ovipositor to reach down into some of the female flowers and lay her eggs in their ovaries, where a gall is formed and the larvae can develop. Then she dies and ends up in a cookie. The End.

But hold on, let’s remove humans from the equation for a moment. She dies, but her eggs hatch into little moth larvae which use the growing fig for nutrition. Once they’re old enough, the young wasps mate with one another inside the fig (another nice mental image for snacktime), and the females gather pollen from the male flowers and store it inside their abdominal pollen baskets (yes, that’s actually what they’re called). The wingless male wasps have a simple, three step life: 1) mate with females, 2) chew a hole through the fig so they can leave, 3) die. That’s pretty much it for them. They may escape the nursery with the females, but they’ll die shortly thereafter, regardless. In fact, even the females have a pretty rough deal; from the time they’re old enough to mate, they have about forty-eight hours to get their eggs fertilized, gather pollen, find a new synconium, distribute the pollen, and lay their eggs. Two days, and their life is over. No pursuit of happiness for the fig wasp, I’m afraid.

“What does it all mean?”
(Via: BugGuide.net)

As with any long-standing mutualism, there are, of course, parasites ready and waiting to take advantage of it. These parasites are wasps which are able to enter the synconium and lay their eggs, but which do not pollinate the fig. Although their eggs will crowd out those of the fig wasps, decreasing the number of fig wasp larvae born, they are kept in check by the fact that any unpollinated synconium will be aborted by the tree and drop to the ground, taking the parasite eggs with it. The nonpollinating wasps are therefore kept from being a serious threat to the tree’s pollinators.

So there you have it, another of evolution’s great matches. The wasps get an edible nursery, the trees get pollinated, and we get tasty fruits with suspicious crunchy bits that probably aren’t dead wasp bodies, so just try not to think about it too much…

Seeds, or wasp eggs? You be the judge!
(Via: This Site)

[Fun Fact: The symbiosis between fig species and their corresponding wasp partners is so specific (often 1:1), that the shape of the ostiole actually matches the shape of the head of the wasp species which will pollinate it.]

[For those who would like to read about figs and fig wasps in much greater detail (such as how this works when the male and female flowers are in different figs), check out this excellent site for all you could ever want to know.]

Says Who?

  • Compton et al. (2010) Biology Letters 6: 838-842
  • Cook et al. (2004) Journal of Evolutionary Biology 17: 238-246
  • Kjellberg et al. (2001)Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Biology 268: 1113-1121
  • Proffit et al. (2009) Entomologia Experimentalis et Applicata 131: 46-57
  • Zhang et al. (2009) Naturwissenschaften 96: 543-549

Advertising in the Wild… Not So Very Different (Ophrys sp.)

(Via: lastdragon.org)

Common Name: Bee Orchids

A.K.A.: Genus Ophrys

Vital Stats:

  • 30-40 recognised species in the genus
  • Grows to a height of 15-50 cm (6-20”)
  • The name Ophrys comes from a word meaning “eyebrow” in Greek, for the fuzzy edges of the petals
  • First mentioned in ancient Roman literature by Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.)

Found: Throughout most of Europe and the British Isles

It Does What?!

We tend to think of animals (including humans) as using plants to serve our ends exclusively- we eat them, clothe ourselves with them, build homes with them, and so on. But for all the obvious ways in which the animal kingdom takes advantage of the plants, there are numerous, more subtle, ways that they use us to do their bidding. One of those ways is as pollinators; plants enlist animals to help them reproduce. And while that enlistment often takes a rather mundane form – a bit of pollen brushed onto a bird’s head as it sips nectar, say – sometimes a group of plants will get a bit more creative about it. Such is the case with the bee orchids.

These highly specialised flowers depend on very specific relationships with their pollinators; often only a single species of bee (or wasp, in some cases) will pollinate a given species of orchid. Without those pollinators, the orchids can’t produce seed and would die out. So how do you control a free-roving creature that has other places to be? Why, sex, obviously. (Isn’t that the basis of most advertising?) The bee orchid has evolved a flower that not only looks, but smells like a virgin female of the bee species which pollinates it.

May not be appropriate for younger readers.
(Via: This Site)

At a distance, the bee detects the pheromones of a receptive female. Once he moves in closer, there she is, sitting on a flower, minding her own business. So he flies in and attempts to do his man-bee thing, only to find that he’s just tried to mate with a plant. Mortified (I imagine), he takes off, but with a small packet of pollen stuck to his head. He’s memorised the scent of this flower now and won’t return to it, but amazingly, the orchids vary their scent just slightly from one flower to the next, even on the same plant, so that the duped bee can never learn to distinguish an orchid from a female. What’s more, because the scent is more different between plants than between flowers on the same plant, he is more likely to proceed to a different plant, decreasing the chances that an orchid will self-fertilise.

Hilariously, researchers have shown that, due to their higher levels of scent variation compared to true female bees (variety being the spice of life, right guys?), male bees actually prefer the artificial pheromones of the orchids over real, live females. In experiments where males were given a choice between mating with an orchid and mating with a bee, they usually chose the flower, even if they had already experienced the real thing.

So there you have it. Plants: master manipulators of us poor, stupid animals.

Who could resist?
(Via: Wikia)

Says Who?

  • Ayasse et al. (2000) Evolution 54(6): 1995-2006
  • Ayasse et al. (2003) Proceedings of the Royal Society, London B. 270: 517-522
  • Streinzer et al. (2009) Journal of Experimental Biology 212: 1365-1370
  • Vereecken & Schiestl (2008) Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 105(21): 7484-7488
  • Vereecken et al. (2010) Botanical Review 76: 220-240

EVOLUTION TAG TEAM, Part 1: Acacia Domatia

The first in an ongoing series of biology’s greatest duos. (Here’s Part 2 and Part 3)

Home, Sweet Home.
(via: Flickr)

Common Name (Plants): Bullhorn Acacias, Whistling Thorns

  • A.K.A.: Acacia cornigera, Acacia drepanolobium, and several other Acacia species

Common Name (Ants): Acacia Ants

  • A.K.A.: Pseudomyrmex and Crematogaster species

Found: Central America (Bullhorn Acacias) and East Africa (Whistling Thorns)

It Does What?!

Life as a tree is tough, particularly when you live in a part of the world that’s home to the biggest herbivores on Earth and happen to have delicate, delicious leaves. Such is the case for the African acacias. Without sufficient defences, they’d be gobbled up in no time by elephants, rhinos, and giraffes. The trees are known for having huge, sharp thorns, but even that’s sometimes not enough; the lips and tongues of giraffes are so tough and dexterous, they can often strip the leaves right out from between the thorns. So what’s a stressed acacia to do? Recruit a freaking army, that’s what.

Pseudomyrmex ferruginea: the giraffe’s worst enemy.
(Photo by April Nobile)

A few species of acacia in both Africa and Central America (where the herbivores are smaller, but no less voracious) have developed a symbiosis wherein they enjoy the services of ant colonies numbering up to 30,000 individuals, tirelessly patrolling their branches 24 hours a day. Should a hungry elephant or goat wander up and take a bite, nearby patrol ants will call in reinforcements and soon the interloper will be utterly overrun with angry, biting ants. What’s more, the protection extends beyond just animal threats. The ants will go so far as to kill other insects, remove fungal pathogens from the surface of the tree and even uproot nearby seedlings because, you know, they might eventually steal some sunlight from the beloved acacia.

“Trespassers Will Be Drawn and Quartered”
(via Wikimedia Commons)

So what do the troops get out of this? Quite a bit, actually. In ant-protected acacias (‘myrmecophytes’, they’re called), the thorns that normally grow at the base of a leaf swell up. In the Central American species, they grow into something that looks like a bull’s horn (hence their common name), while the African ones become more bulbous. These specialized structures, called domatia, are hollow inside and serve as very convenient housing for the ants. What’s more, the trees produce not one, but two different kinds of nourishment for the colony- regular, and baby food. The adult ants will feed from a sweet liquid exuded by nectaries on the branches. Meanwhile, on the tips of the tree’s leaflets, small white structures called Beltian bodies are formed which are high in the protein every growing child ant-larva needs. These are collected by workers and inserted right into the larval pouches, to be eaten before the ants are even fully formed.

The Bullhorn Acacia, now with more Beltian bodies!
(via Flickr)

Sounds like the perfect partnership, right? Usually, yes, but in nature, a symbiosis is only a symbiosis until one side figures out how to take advantage of the other. From the ants’ side, for example, any energy spent by the tree on reproduction is energy not spent on new homes and sweet, sweet nectar for them. Therefore, the ants will sometimes systematically nip all the flowers off the tree as it attempts to bloom. They’ll also prune the acacia’s outward growth if those new shoots may come into contact with a neighbouring tree, allowing invasion by another ant colony. Conversely, if herbivores become scarce and the acacia no longer requires such a strong protection force, it will begin to produce fewer domatia and less nectar in a move to starve some of the ants out. This has been shown to actually be a bad strategy for the acacia, since the soldiers, not to be outsmarted by a tree, turn to farming and begin raising sap-sucking insects on the bark, thereby getting their sugar fix anyway. And so it goes, oscillating between advantageous partnership and opportunistic parasitism… like so many things in life.

The roomier, more spacious African domatium.
(Image by Martin Sharman)

[Side note: While I’ve never personally encountered ant-acacias, I have disturbed an ant-protected tree of another family in the rainforests of Guyana, and can attest to the fact that the retaliation was both swift and intense. I was in a small boat at the edge of a river collecting botanical specimens, and I nearly jumped in the river to escape the onslaught. Don’t mess with ants.]

Says Who?

  • Clement et al. (2008) Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. 62: 953-962.
  • Frederickson (2009) American Naturalist 173(5): 675-681.
  • Huntzinger et al. (2004) Ecology 85(3): 609-614.
  • Janzen (1966) Evolution 20(3): 249-275.
  • Nicklen & Wagner (2006) Oecologia 148: 81-87.
  • Stapley (1998) Oecologia 115: 401-405.