Science: Breath of Life

In Malaysia (among other places) exist the so-called ‘Kerangas’, forests which occur on nutrient-poor sandstone hills. Kerangas actually means ‘land which cannot grow rice’ in the Iban language.
kerangas

Kerangas forest in souther Sarawak. Picture by Michael Lo. (http://ibanorum.netfirms.com/articles.htm)

Kerangas forest in souther Sarawak. Picture by Michael Lo. (http://ibanorum.netfirms.com/articles.htm)

Being nutrient-poor, plants have a hard time growing there. One plant, called the Malayan Urn Vine (Dischidia major) found a way to circumvent this problem, it actually lives on the breath of ants!

In addition to normal leaves, it creates sac-like ‘ant-leaves’, which offer protection for the ants, as they can live in them. By using a technique called ‘stable-isotope analysis’, Kathleen Treseder and colleagues found out that the plant receives 40% from its carbon from ant respiration. Furthermore, it receives 30% of its nitrogen from debris that ants leave on the leaves.

Malayan Urn Vine. You can clearly see the two different types of leaves.  Picture from 'Plantae Asiaticae rariores' by Nathanial Wallach

Malayan Urn Vine. You can clearly see the two different types of leaves. Picture from ‘Plantae Asiaticae rariores’ by Nathanial Wallach.

In this way, the Philidris ants that live in the plant grant it significant amounts of two limiting resources, carbon and nitrogen, enabling the plant to grow better than plants without this adaptation. So here, the ants truly breathe life into the forest!

Source:Treseder, K.K., Davidson, D.W., Ehleringer, J.R. (1995). Absorption of ant-provided carbon and nitrogen by a tropical epiphyte. Nature 375, 137-139

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2 Responses to Science: Breath of Life

  1. Roberta says:

    Hadn’t heard of this particular example before. Fascinating!

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