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Swimming ants and pitcher plants: a unique ant-plant interaction from Borneo

  • C. M. Clarke (a1) and R. L. Kitching (a1)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 01 July 2009

The relationship between Camponotus sp. ants and the carnivorous pitcher plant, Nepenthes bicalcarata, from Borneo were investigated. The ants nest in the hollow tendrils of the plant, and feed on large prey items caught by the pitchers. These are hauled from the pitcher fluid by the ants and consumed. When large prey items are absent, the ants feed upon mosquito larvae which inhabit the pitcher fluid. The accumulation of excess prey in pitchers can lead to putrefaction of the contents, and disruption of the pitcher's digestive system. Experiments on the possible benefits of the ants' behaviour to the plant showed that the accumulation of excess prey and the putrefaction of the pitcher contents were significantly reduced in the presence of the ants. The accumulation of ammonia in pitchers was unaffected by the presence of the ants when small prey were added to pitchers, but was reduced significantly in the presence of ants when large prey were added. It is suggested that Camponotus sp. and N. bicalcarata have a mutualistic association, from which the ants obtain food and nesting sites and, in return, prevent damaging accumulation of excess prey in the pitchers.

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W. E. Bradshaw & R. A. Creelman 1984. Mutualism between the carnivorous purple pitcher plant and its inhabitants. American Midlands Naturalist 112:294304.

C. M. Clarke & R. L. Kitching 1993. The metazoan food webs of six Bornean Nepenthes species. Ecological Entomology 18:716.

C. Darwin 1875. Insectivorous plants. Appleton, London, UK.

B. Holldobler & E. O. Wilson 1990. The ants. Springer-Verlag, Berlin, Germany.

C. Huxley 1980. Symbiosis between ants and epiphytes. Biological Reviews 55:321340.

O. Nemcek , K. Sigler & A. Kleinzeller 1966. Ion transport in the pitcher of Nepenthes henryana. Biochimica et Biophysica Acta 126:7380.

J. N. Thompson 1981. Reversed animal-plant interactions: the evolution of insectivorous and ant-fed plants. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 16:147155.

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