Ant Plants (2010)

PhotoBy Chris Deem (November 2010)

It was at our last Cactus and Succulent Show that I asked a more learned friend, which is an ant plant? She pointed them out on a table and said a most curious thing: that ant plants were not just one species or even just one genus. After saying this, she wrote down two names.

A reasonable argument could be made for symbiosis, benefits for both, a home with a constant food source for the ants and the tiny defenders for the plants. Still, when I am tired or bored, questions often come to my mind. I did wonder why such a thing would have happened, and more than once, in different plants. Let’s look back (hypothetically) at the first rather crazy ant plant.

There can be no particular relationship between the mutations that caused cavities to form in its body and the more usual but just as weird offering of a sugary food. This mutation was at least understandable as an incentive to pollination, but which came first?

If the holes were first, without the food, they would have more likely just attracted parasites or disease. If the food offering came before the holes, and the plant was pollinated, why then bother with the holes? To say nothing of the first ant that entered the plant and changed its own behavior.

It must have been an unusual ant that somehow convinced its whole colony to move in and to defend this plant. It seems a little strange to risk the whole colony, and with an ant brain, how did it know the food source would continue?

I can’t believe it was an instinct, because there had to be a first ant and first ant plant. We just seem to live in a curious world, full of mysteries, coincidences and the occasional ant plant.

A story inspired by the philosopher David Hume and a conversation with Pam Schnebelen.
Names on paper: Hydnophtum formicarum, Myrmecondia echinata