An epiphytic lifestyle is no walk in the park. Baking sun, drying winds, and a lack of soil are the norm. As a result epiphytic plants exhibit numerous adaptations for retaining water and obtaining nutrients. One of the most interesting adaptations to this lifestyle can be seen in plants that have struct up a relationship with ants.
An amazing example of one such relationship can be seen in a genus of epiphytic ferns called Lecanopteris. Native to Southeast Asia and New Guinea, their unique look is equally matched by their unique ecology. Using a highly modified rhizome, they are able to latch on to the branch of a tree. In species such as Lecanopteris mirabilis (pictured here), it's as if the fronds are emerging from a strange green amoeba.
It's whats going on underneath their strange rhizomes that makes this group so fascinating. These ferns literally grow ant farms. Chambers and middens within the amorphous rhizome entice colonies of ants to set up shop. In return for lodging, the ants provide protection. Anything looking to take a bite out of a frond must contend with an army of angry ants. Moreover, the ants provide valuable nutrients in the form of waste and other detritus.
These are by no means the only plants to have evolved a relationship of this sort. Myriad plant species utilize ants for protection, nutrient acquisition, and seed dispersal. It has even been suggested that the unique morphology of Lecanopteris spores is an adaptation for ant dispersal. Certainly one can imagine how that would come into play. Interestingly enough, this group of ferns has attracted the attention of plant enthusiasts looking for a unique plant to grow in their home. As such, you can now find many different species of Lecanopteris being cultivated for the horticultural trade.
Photo Credit: Ch'ien C. Lee (www.wildborneo.com.my/photo.php?f=cld1505721.jpg)