In lowland Amazonian rainforests, specific ants collect seeds of several plant species and cultivate them in arboreal carton nests, forming species-specific symbioses called ant-gardens (AGs). In this obligate mutualism, ants depend on the plants for nest stability and the plants depend on ant nests for substrate and nutrients. AG ants and plants are abundant, dominant members of lowland Amazonian ecosystems, but the cues ants use to recognize the seeds are poorly understood. To address the chemical basis of the ant-seed interaction, we surveyed seed chemistry in nine AG species and eight non-AG congeners. We detected seven phenolic and terpenoid volatiles common to seeds of all or most of the AG species, but a blend of the shared compounds was not attractive to the AG ant Camponotus femoratus. We also analyzed seeds of three AG species (Anthurium gracile, Codonanthe uleana, and Peperomia macrostachya) using behavior-guided fractionation. At least one chromatographic fraction of each seed extract elicited retrieval behavior in C. femoratus, but the active fractions of the three plant species differed in polarity and chemical composition, indicating that shared compounds alone did not explain seed-carrying behavior. We suggest that the various AG seed species must elicit seed-carrying with different chemical cues.
Divergent Chemical Cues Elicit Seed Collecting by Ants in an Obligate Multi-Species Mutualism in Lowland Amazonia
Publication: PLOS ONE