Ants As Pollinators?

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Ants interact with plants in a variety of beneficial ways. They offer protection, they provide nutrients, they even disperse seeds! When it comes to pollination, however, plants have largely gone elsewhere. That's not to say ants don't get directly involved in the sex lives of plants. At least one plant species native to Spain has been found to be pollinated by ants. Certainly there are probably more examples of ant pollination throughout the plant kingdom, we simply have to look. For example, one possible ant-pollinated plant can be found growing on the west coast of North America.

The dwarf owl's-clover (Triphysaria pusilla) is a small annual member of the broomrape family. It really is a dwarf species, rarely exceeding a few inches in height. What it lacks in size, it makes up for in abundance. Large colonies of these species can be found growing among other low statured herbs in wetter areas like spring-fed grasslands. Their tendency to produce lots of anthocyanin pigments in their tissues means that these maroon colonies really stand out. Like other members of the family, it is a facultative hemiparasite, tapping into the roots of surrounding vegetation with its roots, stealing nutrients and water as the situation demands.

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Flowering in the dwarf owl's-clover is rather inconspicuous. The dense flowering spikes produce minute, tubular, maroon-yellow flowers. It has been observed that, at any given point during the flowering season, only three flowers will have matured on any given plant. Two of these flowers mature their anthers first whereas the remaining flower matures its stigma. This is likely an adaptation for increasing the chances of cross pollination. 

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Because these flowers hardly qualify as an attractive display for more commonly encountered insect pollinators, it has been hypothesized that ants are the preferred pollinator of this species. Early work even suggested that the dense leaf arrangement facilitates ant movement to and from flowers in any given colony. Although no one has yet quantified the efficacy of ants as pollinators of this species, numerous observations of ants visiting flowers and picking up pollen have been made. Famously, such a scene was filmed for the 1981 documentary "Sexual Encounters of the Floral Kind."

Whether these visits constitute effective pollination remains to be seen. It could be that the ants are nothing more than nectar and pollen thieves. What's more, many ants produce substances from specialized glands that, among other things, destroy pollen. Until someone takes the time to study this interaction, we simply do not know. Sounds like a fun research project to me! 

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Further Reading: [1]