Scientists Discover Feeding Relationship Between Ants and Bornean Insect-Eating Pitcher Plant

Posted on May 24, 2013

An insect-eating pitcher plant (Nepenthes bicalcarata) in Borneo teams up with ants (Camponotus schmitzi) to prevent mosquito larvae from stealing its nutrients. The ants live on the pitcher plants and swim and dive in the plant's digestive fluids and consume nectar and prey that fall into the trap.

Mathias Scharmann and colleagues from the University of Cambridge and the University Brunei Darussalam discovered the relationship. The scientists found that plants that harbor the ants grow larger than those that do not, which suggests a mutualistic relationship exists between the two.

The scientists say ants appear to help boost the pitcher plants' capture efficiency by keeping traps clean. They also protect the plants by hunt mosquito larvae that would otherwise breed in pitcher fluids and suck up crucial nutrients.

Scharmann says in a statement, "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!. Later, when we discovered that the ants' droppings are returned to the plant, it became clear that this unique behaviour could actually play an important role in the complex relationship of the pitcher plant with the ants."

Here is a video of the ants diving into the fluid of the pitcher plant to hunt mosquito pupae. Take a look:

The research was published here in PLoS One.

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