, Volume 16, Issue 6, pp 1791-1816

Neotropical ant gardens

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Abstract

In ant gardens of lowland Amazonia, parabiotic ant speciesCamponotus femoratus andCrematogaster cf.limata parabiotica cultivate a taxonomically diverse group of epiphytic plants, whose establishment is restricted to arboreal carton ant nests. Epiphyte seeds are collected by workers ofCa. femoratus, the larger of the two ants, and stored unharmed in brood chambers where they subsequently germinate. Although seeds of some ant-garden epiphytes bear nutritional rewards, previous studies have shown that these rewards are not sufficient to explain the pattern of ant attraction to seeds. Five aromatic compounds occur frequently in and on the seeds of most ant-garden epiphytes and may be chemical cues by which ants recognize propagules of their symbiotic plants. The most widely distributed of these is methyl 6-methylsalicylate [6-MMS]1, previously reported as a major mandibular gland product in relatedCamponotus species and present in trace quantities inCa. femoratus males. (−)-Citronellol6 (previously unreported inCamponotus) was the principal volatile constituent in extracts of male heads, and (−)-mellein7 was present in small quantities. Discovery of 6-MMS inside the mandibular glands of maleCa. femoratus (and its presence in analogous glands of related ants) offers preliminary support for Ule's (1906) hypothesis that seeds attract ants by mimicking ant brood. In addition, the likely fungistatic activity of seed compounds suggests that they could retard microbial pathogens of ants and plants in the organic detritus of nest gardens. While the presence of identical seed compounds in so many unrelated plant lineages might represent a remarkable case of convergent evolution, other interpretations are possible.