Plant-ants feed their host plant, but above all a fungal symbiont to recycle nitrogen

Emmanuel Defossez, Champlain Djiéto-Lordon, Doyle McKey, Marc-André Selosse, Rumsaïs Blatrix


In ant–plant symbioses, plants provide symbiotic ants with food and specialized nesting cavities (called domatia). In many ant–plant symbioses, a fungal patch grows within each domatium. The symbiotic nature of the fungal association has been shown in the ant-plant Leonardoxa africana and its protective mutualist ant Petalomyrmex phylax. To decipher trophic fluxes among the three partners, food enriched in 13C and 15N was given to the ants and tracked in the different parts of the symbiosis up to 660 days later. The plant received a small, but significant, amount of nitrogen from the ants. However, the ants fed more intensively the fungus. The pattern of isotope enrichment in the system indicated an ant behaviour that functions specifically to feed the fungus. After 660 days, the introduced nitrogen was still present in the system and homogeneously distributed among ant, plant and fungal compartments, indicating efficient recycling within the symbiosis. Another experiment showed that the plant surface absorbed nutrients (in the form of simple molecules) whether or not it is coated by fungus. Our study provides arguments for a mutualistic status of the fungal associate and a framework for investigating the previously unsuspected complexity of food webs in ant–plant mutualisms.

  • Received September 2, 2010.
  • Accepted October 6, 2010.
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