Integrating phenological, chemical and biotic defences in ant-plant protection mutualisms: a case study of two myrmecophyte lineages


We examined the role of plant phenology in the evolution of anti-herbivore defence in symbiotic ant-plant protection mutualisms. Phenology of the host-plant affects traits of its herbivores, including size, growth rate, development time, and gregariousness. Traits of herbivores in turn determine what traits ants must have to protect their host. Diversity in plant phenological traits could thus help explain the great ecological diversity of coevolved ant-plant mutualisms. We explored the postulated causal chain linking phenology of the plant, herbivore adaptations to phenology, and ant adaptations for protection, by comparing two myrmecophytes presenting strong contrasts in phenology. In Leonardoxa africana, a slow-growing understory tree, growth at each twig terminal is intermittent, the rapid flushing of a single leaf-bearing internode being followed by a pause of several months. In contrast, axes of Barteria nigritana, a tree of open areas, grow continuously. Analysis of the phenology (kinetics of expansion) and chemistry of leaf development (contents of chlorophylls, lignin, and nitrogen during leaf growth) showed that these two species exhibit strongly contrasting strategies. Leonardoxa exhibited a delayed greening strategy, with rapid expansion of leaves during a short period, followed by synthesis of chlorophylls and lignins only after final leaf size has been reached. In contrast, leaves of Barteria expanded more slowly, with chlorophylls and lignin gradually synthesised throughout development. Differences in the phenology of leaf development are reflected in differences in the duration of larval development, and thereby in size, of the principal lepidopteran herbivores observed on these two plants. This difference may in turn have led to different requirements for effective defence by ants. The strategy of phenological defence may thus affect the evolution of biotic defence.

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Correspondence to Laurent Amsellem.

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Amsellem, L., McKey, D.B. Integrating phenological, chemical and biotic defences in ant-plant protection mutualisms: a case study of two myrmecophyte lineages. Chemoecology 16, 223–234 (2006).

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Key words.

  • Myrmecophytes
  • Coevolution
  • Delayed greening
  • Leaf growth
  • Chemical defences
  • Indirect defence
  • Leonardoxa
  • Fabaceae
  • Barteria
  • Passifloraceae