An Intruiguing Relationship Between Ants and Cacti

The extrafloral nectaries of  Pachycereus gatesii  appear as tiny red bumps just below the areole.

The extrafloral nectaries of Pachycereus gatesii appear as tiny red bumps just below the areole.

It’s hard to think of a group of plants that are better defended than cacti. Frequently and often elaborately adorned with vicious spines, these succulents make any animal think twice about trying to take a bite. And yet, for some cacti, spines don’t seem to cut it. A surprising amount of species appear to have taken their defense system to a whole new level by recruiting nature’s most tenacious bodyguards, ants.

Plants frequently have a friend in ants. Spend some time observing ants at work and it’s east to see why. These social insects have numbers and strength on their side. Give ants a reason to be invested in your survival and they will certainly see to it that nothing threatens this partnership. For cacti, this involves the secretion of nectar from specialized tissues called extrafloral nectaries.

Extrafloral nectaries are not unique to cacti. A multitude of plant species produce them, often for similar reasons. Ants love a sugary food source and the more reliable that source becomes, the more adamant an ant colony will be at defending it. The odd thing about cacti is that they don’t seem to have settled on a single type of extrafloral nectary to do the trick. In fact, as many as four different types of extrafloral nectaries have been described in the cactus family.

Ants visiting the extrafloral nectaries covering the developing flowers of  Pilosocereus gounellei .

Ants visiting the extrafloral nectaries covering the developing flowers of Pilosocereus gounellei.

Some cacti secrete nectar from highly modified spines. A great example of this can be seen in genera such as Coryphantha, Cylindropuntia, Echinocactus, Ferocactus, Opuntia, Sclerocactus, and Thelocactus. Such spines are usually short and blunt, hardly resembling spines at all. Other cacti secrete nectar from regular looking spines. This adaptation is odd as there does not seem to be anything special about the anatomy of such spines. Examples of this can be seen in genera such as Brasiliopuntia, Calymmanthium, Harrisia, Opuntia, Pereskiopsis, and Quiabentia. Still others secrete nectar from highly reduced leaves that are found at the base of where the spines originate (the areole). Such leaves have been described in Acanthocereus, Leptocereus, Myrtillocactus, Pachycereus, and Stenocereus. They aren’t easy to recognize as leaves either. Most look like tiny scales. Finally, the fourth type of extrafloral nectary comes in the form of specialized regions of the stem tissue. This has been described in genera such as Armatocereus, Leptocereus, and Pachycereus.

Highly modified spines functioning as extrafloral nectaries in  Ferocactus emoryi.

Highly modified spines functioning as extrafloral nectaries in Ferocactus emoryi.

Seemingly normal spines of  Harrisia pomanensis  secreting nectar.

Seemingly normal spines of Harrisia pomanensis secreting nectar.

Regardless of where they form, their function remains much the same. They secrete a form of nectar which ants find irresistible. The more reliable this food source becomes, the more aggressive ant colonies will be in defending it. This is an especially useful form of defense when it comes to small insect herbivores. Whereas spines deter larger herbivores, they don’t do much to deter organisms that can just slip right through them unharmed. Ants also clean the cacti, potentially removing harmful microbes like fungi and bacteria. Though we are only just beginning to understand the depths of this cactus/ant mutualism, what we have discovered already suggests that the relationship between these types of organisms is far more complex than what I have just outlined above.

For instance, it may not just be sugar that the ants are looking for. In arid desert habitats, water may be the most limiting resource for an ant colony and large, succulent cacti are essentially giant water reservoirs. The key is getting to that water. One study that looked at a species of barrel cactus growing in Arizona called Ferocactus acanthodes found that as spring gives way to summer, the concentration of sugars secreted by the extrafloral nectaries decreases. As a result, the nectar becomes far more watery. Amazingly, ant densities on any given barrel cactus actually increased throughout the summer, despite the fact that the nectar was being watered down. Ants are notoriously prone to desiccation so it stands to reason that water, rather than sugar, is the real prize for colonies hanging out on cacti in such hot desert environments.

The incredible floral display of  Ferocactus wislizeni , a species whose reproductive efforts are affected by the types of ants they attract.

The incredible floral display of Ferocactus wislizeni, a species whose reproductive efforts are affected by the types of ants they attract.

Another interesting observation about the cactus/ant mutualism is that it appears that the identity of the ants truly matters. Though defense is the main benefit to the cactus, research suggests that there is a tipping point in how much such defenses benefit cacti. It has been found that although cacti initially benefit from anti-herbivore and cleaning services, extra aggressive ant species can actually drive off potential pollinators. At least one study has shown that when less aggressive ant species tend cacti, they produce more fruits and those fruits contain significantly more seeds than cacti that have been tended by extremely aggressive ant species. This is especially concerning when we think about the growing issue of invasive ants. As more and more non-native ant species displace native ants, this could really tip the balance for some cactus species.

Despite all of the interesting things we have learned about extrafloral nectaries in the family Cactaceae, there are so many questions yet to be answered. For starters, we still do not know how many different taxa produce them in one form or another. It is likely that closer inspection, especially of rare or poorly understood groups, will reveal that far more cacti produce some type of extrafloral nectary. Also, we know next to nothing about the anatomy of the different types of nectaries. How do they differ from one another and how do some, especially those derived from ordinary spines, actually function? Finally, do these nectaries function year round or is there some sort of seasonal pattern to their development and utility. How does this affect the types of ants they attract and how does that in turn affect the survival and reproduction of these cacti? For such a charismatic group of plants as cacti, we still have to much to learn.

Photo Credits: Thanks to Dr. Jim Mauseth and Dr. John Rebman and Dr. Silvia Rodriguez Machado for use of their photos [1] [2] [3]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6]

Apocynaceae Ant House

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The dogbane family, Apocynaceae, comes in many shapes, sizes, and lifestyles. From the open-field milkweeds we are most familiar with here in North America to the cactus-like Stapeliads of South Africa, it would seem that there is no end to the adaptive abilities of this family. Being an avid gardener both indoors and out, the diversity of Apocynaceae means that I can be surrounded by these plants year round. My endless quest to grow new and interesting houseplants was how I first came to know a genus within the family that I find quite fascinating. Today I would like to briefly introduce you to the Dischidia vines.

Bullate leaves help the vine clasp to the tree as well as house ant colonies.

Bullate leaves help the vine clasp to the tree as well as house ant colonies.

The genus Dischidia is native to tropical regions of China. Like its sister genus Hoya, these plants grow as epiphytic vines throughout the canopy of warm, humid forests. Though they are known quite well among those who enjoy collecting horticultural curiosities, Dischidia as a whole is relatively understudied. These odd vines do not attach themselves to trees via spines, adhesive pads, or tendrils. Instead, they utilize their imbricated leaves to grasp the bark of the trunks and branches they live upon.

The odd, bulb-like leaves of the urn vine ( Dischidia rafflesiana )

The odd, bulb-like leaves of the urn vine (Dischidia rafflesiana)

One thing we do know about this genus is that most species specialize in growing out of arboreal ant nests. Ant gardens, as they are referred to, offer a nutrient rich substrate for a variety of epiphytic plants around the world. What's more, the ants will visciously defend their nests and thus any plants growing within.

The flowers of   Dischidia ovata

The flowers of Dischidia ovata

Some species of Dischidia take this relationship with ants to another level. A handful of species including D. rafflesiana, D. complex, D. major, and D. vidalii produce what are called "bullate leaves." These leaves start out like any other leaf but after a while the edges stop growing. This causes the middle of the leaf to swell up like a blister. The edges then curl over and form a hollow chamber with a small entrance hole.

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These leaves are ant domatia and ant colonies quickly set up shop within the chambers. This provides ample defense for the plant but the relationship goes a little deeper. The plants produce a series of roots that crisscross the inside of the leaf chamber. As ant detritus builds up inside, the roots begin to extract nutrients. This is highly beneficial for an epiphytic plant as nutrients are often in short supply up in the canopy. In effect, the ants are paying rent in return for a place to live.

Growing these plants can take some time but the payoff is worth. They are fascinating to observe and certainly offer quite a conversation piece as guests marvel at their strange form.

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

Further Reading: [1]

The Extraordinary Catasetum Orchids

Male  Catasetum osculatum

Male Catasetum osculatum

Orchids, in general, have perfect flowers in that they contain both male and female organs. However, in a family this large, exceptions to the rules are always around the corner. Take, for instance, orchids in the genus Catasetum. With something like 166 described species, this genus is interesting in that individual plants produce either male or female flowers. What's more, the floral morphology of the individual sexes are so distinctly different from one another that some were originally described as distinct species. 

Female  Catasetum osculatum

Female Catasetum osculatum

In fact, it was Charles Darwin himself that first worked out that plants of the different sexes were indeed the same species. The genus Catasetum enthralled Darwin and he was able to procure many specimens from his friends for study. Resolving the distinct floral morphology wasn't his only contribution to our understanding of these orchids, he also described their unique pollination mechanism. The details of this process are so bizarre that Darwin was actually ridiculed by some scientists of the time. Yet again, Darwin was right. 

Catasetum longifolium

Catasetum longifolium

If having individual male and female plants wasn't strange enough for these orchids, the mechanism by which pollination is achieved is quite explosive... literally. 

Catasetum orchids are pollinated by large Euglossine bees. Attracted to the male flowers by their alluring scent, the bees land on the lip and begin to probe the flower. Above the lip sits two hair-like structures. When a bee contacts these hairs, a structure containing sacs of pollen called a pollinia is launched downwards towards the bee. A sticky pad at the base ensures that once it hits the bee, it sticks tight. 

Male Catasetum flower in action. Taken from BBC's Kingdom of Plants.

Male Catasetum flower in action. Taken from BBC's Kingdom of Plants.

Bees soon learn that the male flowers are rather unpleasant places to visit so they set off in search of a meal that doesn't pummel them. This is quite possibly why the flowers of the individual sexes look so different from one another. As the bees visit the female flowers, the pollen sacs on their back slip into a perfect groove and thus pollination is achieved. 

Eulaema polychroma  visiting  Catasetum integerrimum

Eulaema polychroma visiting Catasetum integerrimum

The uniqueness of this reproductive strategy has earned the Catasetum orchids a place in the spotlight among botanists and horticulturists alike. It begs the question, how is sex determined in these orchids? Is it genetic or are there certain environmental factors that push the plant in either direction? As it turns out, light availability may be one of the most important cues for sex determination in Catasetum

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A paper published back in 1991 found that there were interesting patterns of sex ratios for at least one species of Catasetum. Female plants were found more often in younger forests whereas the ratios approached an even 1:1 in older forests. What the researchers found was that plants are more likely to produce female flowers under open canopies and male flowers under closed canopies. In this instance, younger forests are more open than older, more mature forests, which may explain the patterns they found in the wild. It is possible that, because seed production is such a costly endeavor for plants, individuals with access to more light are better suited for female status. 

Catasetum macrocarpum

Catasetum macrocarpum

Aside from their odd reproductive habits, the ecology of these plants is also quite fascinating. Found throughout the New World tropics, Catasetum orchids live as epiphytes on the limbs and trunks of trees. Living in the canopy like this can be stressful and these orchids have evolved accordingly. For starters, they are deciduous. Most of the habitats in which they occur experience a dry season. As the rains fade, the plants will drop their leaves, leaving behind a dense cluster of green pseudobulbs. These bulbous structures serve as energy and water stores that will fuel growth as soon as the rains return. 

Catasetum silvestre in situ

Catasetum silvestre in situ

The canopy can also be low in vital nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. As is true for all orchids, Catasetum rely on an intimate partnership with special mychorrizal fungi to supplement these ingredients. Such partnerships are vital for germination and growth. However, the fungi that they partner with feed on dead wood, which is low in nitrogen. This has led to yet another intricate and highly specialized relationship for at least some members of this orchid genus. 

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Mature Catasetum are often found growing right out of arboreal ant nests. Those that aren't will often house entire ant colonies inside their hollowed out pseudobulbs. This will sometimes even happen in a greenhouse setting, much to the chagrin of many orchid growers. The partnership with ants is twofold. In setting up shop within the orchid or around its roots, the ants provide the plant with a vital source of nitrogen in the form of feces and other waste products. At the same time, the ants will viciously attack anything that may threaten their nest. In doing so, they keep many potential herbivores at bay.  

Female  Catasetum planiceps

Female Catasetum planiceps

To look upon a flowering Catasetum is quite remarkable. They truly are marvels of evolution and living proof that there seems to be no end to what orchids have done in the name of survival. Luckily for most of us, one doesn't have to travel to the jungles and scale a tree just to see one of these orchids up close. Their success in the horticultural trade means that most botanical gardens house at least a species or two. If and when you do encounter a Catasetum, do yourself a favor and take time to admire it in all of its glory. You will be happy that you did. 

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] 

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

Devil's Gardens

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Imagine, if you will, walking through the dense understory somewhere in the Amazon basin. Diversity reigns supreme here and it would seem that every few steps reveals myriad new plant species. As you walk along, something in the vegetation changes. You stumble into a clearing in the middle of the forest dominated entirely by a single species of tree. Why the sudden change? How did this monoculture develop? You, my friend, have just found yourself on the edge of a Devil's garden. 

Devil's gardens are said to be the resting place of an evil spirit known to local tribes as Chullachaki. Anyone unlucky enough to stumble into his garden is said at risk of attack or curse. In reality, these gardens have a biological origin. The real gardeners are a handful of ant species which seem to have rather specific gardening preferences. Careful inspection would reveal that the gardens largely consist of trees in one of three genera - Duroia, Tococa, or Clidemia

Tococa  sp. (Melastomataceae)

Tococa sp. (Melastomataceae)

The reason that ants are so fond of these genera has to do with housing. These plant groups contain species which produce swellings along their stems and petioles known as domatia. These domatia are hollow and are the favorite nesting spots of various ant species. Ant colonies set up shop within. As anyone who has ever blundered into an ant colony can attest, ants are quite voracious at defending their home. 

By providing ant colonies with a home base, these plants have essentially hired body guards. It is a wonderful form of symbiosis in which the ants aggressively defend against anything that might want to take a bite out of their host tree. Any herbivore trying to take up residence or lay eggs within the Devil's garden is viciously attacked. In doing so, the ants are protecting their host trees at the cost of all other plants unlucky enough to germinate within the garden. Still, this anti-herbivore behavior doesn't totally explain the monoculture status these host trees achieve within the garden itself. Why are these gardens so ominously devoid of other plant species?

To answer this, one would have to watch how the ants behave as they forage. While scouting, if ants encounter a seedling of their host tree, nothing really happens. They go about their business and let the seedling grow into a future home. When they encounter a non-host tree, however, their behavior completely changes. 

Behold - A Devil's Garden

Behold - A Devil's Garden

The ants begin biting the stem of the plant, exposing its vascular tissue. As they bite, the ants also sting the foreign seedling, injecting minute amounts of formic acid into the wound. One or two ants isn't enough to bring down a seedling but one thing ants have on their side are numbers. Soon an entire platoon of ants descend upon the hapless seedling, stinging it repeatedly. In no time at all, the seedling succumbs to the formic acid injections and dies. By repeating this process any time a foreign plant is found growing within the vicinity of the garden, the resident ants ensure that only trees that will produce domatia are allowed to grow in their garden. Thus, a Devil's garden has been formed. 

Although this relationship seems incredibly beneficial for each party, it does come at some cost to the plants themselves. Certainly forming the domatia is a costly endeavor on the part of the plant, but research has also shown that growing in such high, monoculture-like densities in the jungle has its downsides. It has been found that individual host trees can actually experience more herbivore pressures when growing within a Devil's garden than if it was growing alone, elsewhere in the forest. 

Despite their aggression towards herbivores, the ants simply cannot be everywhere at once. As such, the high densities of host tree species within a Devil's garden act like a dinner bell for any insect that enjoys feeding on that particular type of plant. Essentially, the ants are concentrating a potential food source. Experts believe that this might explain why Devil's gardens never completely take over entire swaths of forest. Essentially, there are diminishing returns to living in such high densities. Still, benefits must outweigh costs if such mutualisms are to be maintained and it is quite obvious that both plant and ant benefit from this interaction to a great degree. 

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4]

Fern Ant Farm

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)

Further Reading:
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