How aggressive ant-guards assist seed-set in Acacia flowers

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Abstract

The phenomenon of ant-guarding on Acacia trees is probably the best known case of a mutualism between plants and animals, the ants conferring biotic defence against herbivores and perhaps against encroaching vegetation(1-3). However, as with many defence mutualisms, sometimes the interests of the plant and its defender conflict: for example, when they are in newer the Acacia trees require the presence and service of other insects to effect cross-pollination. How is pollinator access achieved in the face of aggressive ant-guards? Here we report that ants are deterred from young flowers at the crucial stage of dehiscence, allowing bees and other pollinators to visit and transfer pollen. This deterrence appears to be a response to a volatile chemical signal from young flowers, perhaps from the pollen itself. Ants patrol the young (undehisced) buds, and also return to the flowers after dehiscence, protecting the fertilized ovules and developing seeds. The outcome is a directly improved seed-set in the presence of ants (rather than an indirect extra reproductive resource allocation due to decreased defoliation(4-6)).

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)165-167
Number of pages3
JournalNature
Volume388
Publication statusPublished - 10 Jul 1997

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