Trees Trap Ants Into Sweet Servitude


An evolutionary alliance between trees and the ants that guard them has a sinister explanation, a new study suggests, finding ants hooked on nectar.

In Central America, ants act as bodyguards for acacia trees, defending them from weeds and hungry animals in exchange for room and board, one of the most iconic alliances in nature. (See "Ant Bodyguards Get Exclusive Contract From Trees.")

But Martin Heil of Cinvestav Unidad Irapuato in Mexico has found that the tree's sugary snacks are laced with an enzyme that prevents the ants from eating other sources of sugar.

One sip, and the insects are consigned to a life of indentured servitude.

"It was surprising to me that the immobile, 'passive' plant can manipulate the seemingly much more active partner, the ant," says Heil.

The report illustrates how evolution keeps cooperative relationships among some species going, even when one partner is clearly reaping most of the benefits in the arrangement.

Written By: Ed Yong
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  1. It would be interesting to learn if the African Acacia trees have the same effect on their ant guards.

  2. We talk about ants and acacias in my Advanced Biology class. This is certainly going to enhance the discussions! Coevolution!!! Symbiosis!!!

    BTW, next we will hear that this nectar is more addictive than OREOS!

  3. Many humans are addicted to wheat plant…gluten in beer and bread….and lactose in the cow’s milk and dairy……servitude to the two gods…and I’m sure there’s many others…

  4. This is news!

    ” There are other examples where two-way partnerships are more biased than they first appear. “

    The term mutualism may have to be redefined!

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