Ant-plant interactions are really common in nature, and while people might most often picture ants as carrying pieces of leaves cut from tropical plants, ant behavior in the Midwest is less appreciated.
Moni Berg-Binder, Ph.D., associate professor of biology at Saint Mary’s University, finds ant mediated seed dispersal, called myrmecochory, fascinating and says that the temperate deciduous forests here in North America have many examples of plants that engage with the native plant community.
“In myrmecochory, these plants, often spring ephemerals, which are early blooming spring plants, produce seeds with a nutritious structure that sticks off the seed called an elaiosome,” she said. “Typically what happens is the seeds fall to the ground which is called primary dispersal. The Ants forage and find the seeds on the ground and then pick up seeds and carry them to their nest. This is secondary dispersal. Then, once they get the seeds into their nests, those seeds are brought to places where developing larvae eat the elaiosome. But the seed is unharmed.”
From there, she said the seeds are then deposited in a chamber inside of their nests or they may take the seeds and put them in a refuse pile or a garbage dump just outside the nest. Ants, apparently, keep a very clean nest.
And oftentimes the ground soil around ant activity, is elevated in organic matter, nitrogen, phosphorous, possibly moisture — all really good things for plants and essentially the same thing as fertilizer. So the seed flourishes.
“It’s a beautiful example of mutualism,” she said. “The seed is taken and has effectively been planted inside this nest with nature’s fertilizer. The win from the ant perspective is that they received food.”
Dr. Berg-Binder and her students have focused their research on a plant called bloodroot. Local ants disperse the seeds of bloodroot.
Dr. Berg-Binder became interested in plant interactions while in graduate school when she became intrigued by the win-win scenario of mutualism. For her graduate work, she had been interested in conservation and how invasive species are introduced to a natural area where they did not typically belong. These invasive species can engage in mutualism with native species.
She said there is much more studying to be done on the relationship native ants have with both native plants and invasive plants.
Are ants helping the invasive species become more invasive? “They’re a great study system, and I find them really fascinating,” she said.
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Moni Berg-Binder, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Biology
Expertise: Invasive plant species and native plants; ecology and animal-plant interactions