Thursday, February 18, 2010

plant and ant symbiosis

Treehugger | The relationship between the tropical acacia plant and 'guard' ants that defend it from predators has long been a fascinating example of symbiosis in nature: the ants feed on the acacia's sugary nectar, and in turn aggressively sting and bite other animals that would eat and damage the plant. But it turns out that this arrangement might not be as friendly as previously thought. New research reveals that the acacia plant actually produces a chemical that drives the ants into a defensive frenzy--alternately persuading them to fight to protect it and banishing them from its flowers when convenient.

The old adage about truth being stranger than you-know-what certainly applies here. Scientific research has now shown us a case where a plant is deploying a chemical drug on a legion of ants to get it to do its bidding. If that were the plot of a sci-fi film, we'd call it mind control. But as usual, the actual evolutionary science is more interesting than any number of b-movies.

Researchers at the University of London have been studying how the ants and acacias could have co-evolved when they began to understand how truly complex their relationship was--and how vital the ants are to the plants' survival. So much so that the plants can 'persuade' the ants to attack other creatures--anything from spiders to giraffes--on their behalf. Fist tap Dale for providing a rich and complete riff in the key of subreality.