Ants protect plants better when jacked up on nectar

As ants roam around on a plant, they can help their leafy companion by killing any herbivores they find. Ants often do just that, because many ants need meat in their diets.

Some species of ants are more aggressive than others, and many plants don't have any choice about which species visit.

Researchers report for the first time that when plants supply ants with nectar, it boosts the ants' desire for meat, potentially making them better bodyguards for the plant.

"If you have enough birthday cake or soda pop, you're eventually going to want something of substance," said team leader Joshua A. Ness, an ecologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

The same is true of ants, he said. And the most convenient protein packets for ants on plants are often insects that are there to munch on the plant.

Nectar isn't just found in flowers. Many plants exude nectar from little pores on the plant, called extrafloral nectaries, that attract ants.

"The plant wants ants to be protein eaters while they are on the plant," said team member Judith L. Bronstein, a professor in UA's department of ecology and evolutionary biology. "The plant gets them really jacked up on carbs so they're desperate for protein."

Ness's presentation on the team's findings, "Contrasting the diet and aggressiveness of the ant bodyguards tending an extrafloral nectary-bearing plant," will be given at 10:10 a.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 4, in Room D135 of the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, Ore., at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America. Ecologist William F. Morris of Duke University in Durham, N.C., is also a team member. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

Ness and his colleagues study mutualisms, beneficial partnerships between species. In this case, the team studied the behavior of four species of ants that visit extrafloral nectaries on a common Sonoran des

Contact: Mari N. Jensen, UA News Services
University of Arizona

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