, Volume 80, Issue 4, pp 490–497

Seed dispersal by ants: behaviour-releasing compounds in elaiosomes


  • Christine R. Brew
    • Department of Botany and ZoologyMonash University
  • Dennis J. O'Dowd
    • Department of Botany and ZoologyMonash University
  • Ian D. Rae
    • Department of ChemistryMonash University
Original Papers

DOI: 10.1007/BF00380071

Cite this article as:
Brew, C.R., O'Dowd, D.J. & Rae, I.D. Oecologia (1989) 80: 490. doi:10.1007/BF00380071


In a study of the biochemical basis of seed dispersal by ants, elaiosomes of Acacia myrtifolia and Tetratheca stenocarpa induced seed collection: intact diaspores and elaiosomes were taken rapidly by ants while most seeds remained on the forest floor. Extracts of elaiosomes (non-polar lipids, polar lipids, and aqueous fractions) were differentially collected by ants. Small pieces of pith impregnated with the polar lipid fraction from elaiosomes of either species elicited a removal rate by ants equivalent to that of intact elaiosomes and significantly higher than that of untreated pith. The non-polar lipid fraction, highest in concentration in elaiosomes of both species, elicited removal that did not differ from that of untreated pith. In T. stenocarpa, however, the aqueous fraction also induced removal equivalent to the polar lipid fraction. 1,2-Diglycerides with unsaturated groups are present in the active polar fractions of both species and unsaturated oleate is the major acid group of the glycerides in elaiosomes. Most oleate-containing compounds tested were taken more rapidly by ants than saturated compounds, and oleic acid, associated with corpse-carrying in ants, induced rapid removal. 1,2-Diolein, but not 1,3-diolein, was taken suggesting that the specific configuration of fatty acid moieties influences collection by ants. We hypothesize that a small suite of oleyl-containing compounds in elaiosomes elicit a stereotyped carrying response by a variety of ants. While the nutrient composition of elaiosomes may provide the underlying selective advantage for ants in seed dispersal, specific compounds may manipulate their behaviour and maximize seed dispersal.

Key words

AntsElaiosomeLipidsMutualismSeed dispersal
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© Springer-Verlag 1989