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Cecropia: Symbiosis with ants

Cecropia like this one are fast-growing pioneer plants found in tropical regions of Latin America. They’re known as pioneers species because they’re the first plants to move into any empty space in the forest, such as when an old tree falls and dies. Of course, competition for space is fierce, but Cecropia have a secret weapon: They cooperate with ants.

Cecropia’s stems have hollow chambers, somewhat like bamboo, that are often inhabited by colonies of ants. These chambers have special thin-walled entryways that are bitten through by the ants to gain access to the inside of the plant. In addition to shelter, Cecropia also provides its insect tenants with food, producing protein-rich nutrient bodies. You can recognize these regions of the plants as light-colored raised areas below leaf attachments.

But why would Cecropia provide room and board for the ants?

The species of ants that colonize Cecropia are very aggressive, and vigorously defend their homes. So the benefit is clear: almost no hungry animal is willing to risk taking a nibble at the plant, and Cecropia can grow in peace. But even the ants don’t scare off some creatures: Cecropia is a favorite food of sloths, which just ignore the biting insects.

Audio file download
Cecropia: Symbiosis with ants (MP3, 582 KB)

Audio production and copyright: Soundgarden Audioguidance GmbH
Text: Günter Gerlach, Botanischer Garten München-Nymphenburg

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