FunNature & AnimalThe secrets of the ants

The secrets of the ants

When we study pollination in school we are usually referred to bees or, hopefully, some butterflies. Maya the bee is very funny, but this heminopteran insect is not the only one in charge of carrying pollen from one place to another. And the truth is that you will have seen a European bee ( Apis mellifera ) many times in your life, also called a domestic or honey bee, precisely because of its use in making honey. But surely you have also found butterflies, bumble bees, moths, flies and even hummingbirds rummaging in the intimacies of flowers. All these pioneers of artificial fertilization participate in the transport of pollen from the stamen to the stigma.

What you may never have thought is that ants contribute to pollination. As always going from one flower to another, although not as expertly as winged insects. Cases of pollination by ants have been described in more than 40 species of plants belonging to 20 different families. Traditionally they have been considered poor pollinators for several reasons: their small size compared to flowers, their cleaning habits that border on obsession, the absence of wings in the workers and the production of antibiotic substances that put the integrity of the plant at risk. pollen. But if we have a high number of individuals who frequently visit the flowers, pollination can be effective. In 1974 the ecologist James C. Hickman described the so-called “ant pollination syndrome”, in which he explained what the characteristics must be for a plant to be pollinated by ants. They must be small in size, with little synchronicity in flowering within the plant, these have dense populations, in addition to having a small nectary, with little nectar density and with open and small flowers. But there are even plants that have evolved to offer resistance to the natural antibiotic produced by ants, they are the genus Conospermum.

The process of dispersal of plant seeds by ants has a name: it is myrmecocoria. It is an interspecies relationship of mutualism in which the plant offers food to the ants and these, in return, help to carry them from one place to another. Think of a little boy carrying breadcrumbs from the kitchen to the living room. Some will fall along the way. This is what happens with ants, because in the process of collection and selective consumption of the seeds, some are left on the road and never reach the anthill. Or it could also be part of the waste piles of the anthills. The joint evolution of the seeds of these plants and ants that live under mutualism has generated that the seeds have a certain fleshy protrusion. We are talking about the eleosome, a structure rich in lipids that ants piss off. The eleosome is gobbled up and the rest of the seed is ready to germinate. A perfect natural contract, or in other words, a paradigmatic example of convergent evolution, since it is present in 11,000 different species of plants and could be present in up to 23,000.

The jungles of Borneo contain disturbing carnivorous plants called Nepenthes bicalcarata . They are shaped like a jar with a kind of lid without fitting into the hole, with quite striking colors. These “friendly” plants have evolved to attract, capture and retain small prey inside, where gastric juices wait to digest curious visitors. These are invited to a feast and end up being eaten, what a host. But this death trap has been outwitted thanks to evolution by a species of ant, the Colobopsis schmitzi . Perhaps it is another case of mutualism, although it is still under study. As early as 1880, the English explorer Frederick William Burbidge observed this relationship between ants and the plant, without describing the process in detail. Later other scientists suggested that although they swarmed around, they could become prey if they fell into the bowl with the deadly liquid. Although they feed on the nectar of the plant, they have the ability to dive into gastric juices to collect prey from the plant itself. However, it appears that large prey is the primary target, so Colobopsis schmitzi may be protecting Nepenthes bicalcarata from rot.

Myrmecologist Mark W. Moffett once said that “humans are more like ants than chimpanzees.” And it is that both human beings and ants live in society, but the case of the latter is the highest level of a social organization: most of the members do not leave descendants and work for the benefit of their queens, of the males. that fertilize them and their offspring. This type of social organization is called eusociality, a term that was coined by the New York entomologist Suzanne Batra to refer to the bees of the Halictidae family. Eusociality occurs in cases as diverse as crustaceans, the naked mole rat or meerkats. And a delicate debate among ethologists initiated by entomologist Edward Osborne Wilson, is the human species eusocial?

Among the publications of the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC) there is an interesting collection called “What do we know about?” In the title “Las ants” the biologist J. Manuel Vidal-Cordero tells us some of the stories we have read above and many more. An agile and enjoyable read for lovers of myrmecology or zoology in general.

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