Epiphyte and Ant Garden Studies

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This is a companion page to the Antwiki Ant gardens webpage.


  • Chomicki, G. and S. S. Renner. 2019. Farming by ants remodels nutrient uptake in epiphytes. New Phytologist. 223:2011-2023. doi:10.1111/nph.15855

True agriculture - defined by habitual planting, cultivation, harvesting and dependence of a farmer on a crop - is known from fungi farmed by ants, termites or beetles, and plants farmed by humans or ants. Because farmers supply their crops with nutrients, they have the potential to modify crop nutrition over evolutionary time. Here we test this hypothesis in ant/plant farming symbioses. We used field experiments, phylogenetic-comparative analyses and computed-tomography scanning to investigate how the evolution of farming by ants has impacted the nutrition of locally coexisting species in the epiphytic genus Squamellaria (Rubiaceae). Using isotope-labelled mineral and organic nitrogen, we show that specialised ants actively and exclusively fertilise hyperabsorptive warts on the inner walls of plant-formed structures (domatia) where they nest, sharply contrasting with nitrogen provisioning by ants in nonfarming generalist symbioses. Similar hyperabsorptive warts have evolved repeatedly in lineages colonised by farming ants. Our study supports the idea that millions of years of ant agriculture have remodelled plant physiology, shifting from ant-derived nutrients as by-products to active and targeted fertilisation on hyperabsorptive sites. The increased efficiency of ant-derived nutrient provisioning appears to stem from a combination of farming ant behaviour and plant 'crop' traits.


  • Vergara-Torres, C. A., A. M. Corona-Lopez, C. Diaz-Castelazo, V. H. Toledo-Hernandez, and A. Flores-Palacios. 2018. Effect of seed removal by ants on the host-epiphyte associations in a tropical dry forest of central Mexico. Aob Plants. 10:11. doi:10.1093/aobpla/ply056

Seed depredation is recognized as a determining factor in plant community structure and composition. Ants are primary consumers of seeds influencing abundance of epiphytes on trees. This study was conducted in two subunits of a tropical dry forest established on different soil substrates in San Andres de la Cal, Teportlan, in Morelos, Mexico, and experimentally tested whether seed removal activity is higher in tree species with smaller epiphyte loads compared to those with greater epiphyte loads. Five trees were selected at random from six species of trees with high (preferred hosts) or low (limiting hosts) epiphyte loads. Seed removal differed among hosts and different soil substrates in the forest. On relating seed removal to the abundance of arboreal ants, the most consistent pattern was that lower seed removal was related to lower ant abundance, while high seed removal was associated with intermediate to high ant abundance. Epiphyte seed removal by ants influences epiphyte abundance and can contribute considerably to a failure to establish, since it diminishes the quantity of seeds available for germination and establishment.