Plants feed ants: food bodies of myrmecophytic Piper and their significance for the interaction with Pheidole bicornis ants
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Several species of Piper (Piperaceae) live in symbiosis with Pheidole bicornis (Formicidae-Myrmicinae) on the southern Pacific slope of Costa Rica. These plants produce small single-celled food bodies (FBs) in leaf domatia, formed by the petiole bases and roofing leaf sheaths. In the present study the dependency of ants on FBs of Piper fimbriulatum as a food source was analysed by comparing the natural abundance of 13C and 15N in ants and FBs. Both δ13C and δ15N values were very similar between FBs and Pheidole bicornis ants but differed substantially between the plant and other ant species. Therefore we suggest that FBs are a main food source for Pheidole bicornis ants. To strengthen this suggestion, the chemical composition of FBs of four myrmecophytic Piper species was analysed, with special emphasis on the nutritional requirements of inhabiting Pheidole bicornis ants. Standard chemical methods were modified and combined to a novel analysis scheme by which all major FB constituents could be quantified from minute [3–10 mg dry mass (DM)] quantities. Piper FBs mainly consisted of lipids (41–48% of DM) and proteins (17–24% of DM). Soluble carbohydrates and amino acids proved to be quantitatively unimportant. N was predominantly stored as soluble protein and, thus, was easily available to the ants. FBs proved to be a high-energy food source (up to 23 kJ g–1 DM), with a chemical composition that meets well the nutritional needs of the inhabiting ants.
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