|California Academy of Sciences » General Information » Newsroom » Archive » 2003 » Academy Scientist Discovers New Ant Species|
Academy Scientist Discovers New Ant Species
SAN FRANCISCO (April 12, 2003) - If you think the housing market is tough in San Francisco, try being an ant in Madagascar. With thousands of insect species competing for space in the same twig, log or leaf litter, finding a safe place to nest is a challenge - which is why at least two ant species have learned to live inside the hollow stems of Madagascar's melastome plants. On a recent expedition to this island off the coast of Africa, Academy entomologist Dr. Brian Fisher discovered these new ant species and their accommodating hosts, which are the first "ant plants" known from Madagascar.
Ant plants are relatively common in the tropics, where plants are swarmed by predators. By providing special living quarters for ants inside their stems or leaves, ant plants acquire a highly effective defense system. Because of their natural inclination to protect their home, ants that live in the plants will fight off other insects, larger herbivores, and even encroaching vines. Sometimes this mutually beneficial relationship extends to food as well. Some ant plants produce protein-rich food nodules for their inhabitants and absorb nutrients from the ants' waste in exchange.
Before the recent expedition, Fisher was puzzled by the apparent lack of ant plants in Madagascar, since they are abundant in Africa, Asia and South America. Now he has a new puzzle to solve - the Madagascar ant plants are much more closely related to South American ant plants than they are to their African neighbors.