How an ant walks around the rim of a carnivorous plant may seem to be a scene plucked out of the "Little Shop of Horrors" movie but this is a perfectly normal sight in the virgin forests of Borneo. In that corner of the globe, diving ants, Camponotus schmitzi, and pitcher plants, Nepenthes bicalcaranta, have a relationship made in heaven.
The diving ant calls the stalks and leaves of the fanged plant its comfortable abode. It even swims into the pool of digestive fluid of the insect-eating plant.
The N. bicalcaranta is a natural deathtrap for insects such as ants. It lures in preys into its deadly pitchers using its beautiful colors and its sweet nectar. When insects crawl to the plant's lips, they would slip down into the pitcher and meet their doom. The insects drown in the pool of fluids just like how food is digested in the stomach. The fluids, not as strong as the gastric acid of animals,help break down the insects and help the plant harvest essential nutrients such as nitrogen. To complete the picture, the pitchers of the plant have two thorns that resemble small fangs.
The article on Los Angeles Times relates how the ants are able to negotiate the slippery substance on the plant's lip. The ants can also dive to get bigger insects that will serve as its food. This picture makes it clear that the ants benefit from the relationship but what do the plants get in return?
A study titled "A Novel Type of Nutritional Ant-Plant Interaction: Ant Partners of Carnivorous Pitcher Plants Prevent Nutrient Export by Dipteran Pitcher Infauna" published Wednesday on PLoS One put a spotlight on the plant-insect relationship.
While some may think that only the ants benefit from the relationship, the proponents of the study, led by Mathias Scharmann from the University of Cambridge, noticed that the plants with the ant colonies are actually healthier and bigger than plants without the diving ants.
The scientists noted that the ants help the carnivorous plants by keeping its surface clean and eating larvae of mosquitoes and fly that thrive in the pitcher of the plant. Getting rid of the larvae that steal nutrients from the host make the plant healthier. The ants also convert the insects into waste from which the plant can absorb nutrients.
The proponents of the study confirmed their hypothesis by placing mosquito larvae and diving ants into the pitcher fluids and observed what the ants will do. The ants bit and dragged the larvae out of the fluid and up the sides of the pitcher.
"Kneeling down in the swamp amidst huge pitcher plants in a Bornean rainforest, it was a truly jaw-dropping experience when we first noticed how very aggressive and skilled the Camponotus schmitziants were in underwater hunting," Scharmann shared the team's amazing experience.
Check out the video of this symbiosis below: