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The plant-ant Camponotus schmitzi helps its carnivorous host-plant Nepenthes bicalcarata to catch its prey

Bonhomme V., Gounand I., Alaux C., Jousselin E., Barthélémy D., Gaume L.. 2011. Journal of Tropical Ecology, 27 (1) : p. 15-24.

DOI: 10.1017/S0266467410000532

The Bornean climber, Nepenthes bicalcarata, is unique among plants because it is both carnivorous and myrmecophytic, bearing pitcher-shaped leaves and the ant Camponotus schmitzi within tendrils. We explored, in the peat swamp forests of Brunei, the hypothesis that these ants contribute to plant nutrition by catching and digesting its prey.Wefirst tested whether ants increasedplant's capture rate.Wefound that unlikemost plant-ants, C. schmitzidonot exhibit dissuasive leaf-patrolling behaviour (zero patrol on 67 pitchers of 10 plants) but lie concealed under pitcher rim (13 ± 6 ants per pitcher) allowing numerous insect visits. However, 47 out of 50 individuals of the largest visitor dropped into the pitchers of five plants were attacked by ants and the capture rate of the same pitchers deprived of their ambush hunting ants decreased three-fold.We then tested whether ants participated in plant's digestion.We showed in a 15-d long experiment that ants fed on prey and returned it in pieces in seven out of eight pitchers. The 40 prey deposited in ant-deprived pitchers remained intact indicating a weak digestive power of the fluid confirmed to be only weakly acidic (pH ?5, n = 67). The analysis of 10 pitcher contents revealed that prey, mainly ants and termites, was very numerous (?400 per pitcher per plant) and highly fragmented. Altogether, these data suggest a positive effect of C. schmitzi on both prey intake and breakdown. This ant-plant interaction could thus be a nutritional mutualism involving the unusual association of carnivory and myrmecotrophy. (Résumé d'auteur)

Mots-clés : camponotus; nepenthaceae; bornéo; nepenthes bicalcarata; camponotus schmitzi

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