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Obligate plant farming by a specialized ant


Many epiphytic plants have associated with ants to gain nutrients. Here, we report a novel type of ant–plant symbiosis in Fiji where one ant species actively and exclusively plants the seeds and fertilizes the seedlings of six species of Squamellaria (Rubiaceae). Comparison with related facultative ant plants suggests that such farming plays a key role in mutualism stability by mitigating the critical re-establishment step.

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Figure 1: Philidris nagasau farms Squamellaria.
Figure 2: Coevolution of Philidris nagasau and Squamellaria, and multiple ‘domestication’ events in epiphytic ant plants.


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We thank J. Aroles for essential help in the field and critical reading of the manuscript; A. Naikatini and M. Tuiwava for help with permissions and voucher collection; V. Mayer, University of Vienna, for instructions and material for the nitrogen isotope experiments; C. Mayr, University of Munich, for the analyses of nitrogen isotope ratios; M. Lehman, Metabolomic facility of the University of Munich (LMU), for the metabolomic analyses; E. Kaufmann and M. Janda for Philidris samples and for discussion; P.I. Garcia, G. Fisher and E. Economo for help with ant identification, P. S. Ward, C.S. Moreau, M. Jebb, A. Wistuba, and D. McKey for discussion; and M. Frederickson, N. Pierce, R. Ricklefs, A. B. F. Ivens and two anonymous reviewers for comments on the manuscript. This work was supported by a grant from the German Research Foundation (DFG), RE 603/20, and grants from the Society of Systematic Biologists and the American Association of Plant Taxonomy to G.C.

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Authors and Affiliations



G.C. designed the study, conducted the experiment and analysed the data. G.C. and S.S.R. wrote the manuscript. S.S.R. and G.C. contributed reagents.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Guillaume Chomicki.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Methods, Supplementary References, Supplementary Figures 1–7. (PDF 9875 kb)

Supplementary Table 1

Families, mean DBH, abundance and occupancies of host trees for specialized (S. imberbis) versus facultative Squamellaria (S. wilkinsonii) along the transect. (DOCX 93 kb)

Supplementary Table 2

Primers used in this study. (DOCX 111 kb)

Supplementary Table 3

Plant material included in this study, with species authors, vouchers and their geographic origin, and GenBank accession numbers for all sequences. (DOCX 107 kb)

Supplementary Table 4

Hydnophytinae material included in this study, with taxonomic authors, vouchers and their geographic origin, and GenBank accession numbers for all sequences. Herbarium acronyms follow the Index Herbariorum. (DOCX 145 kb)

Supplementary Table 5

Ant material included in this study. Information for CASENT vouchers can be found in AntWeb: Vouchers are deposited in the Biology Centre of the Czech Academy of Sciences, Budweis, Czech Republic, or in the Zoologische Staatssammlung, Munich, Germany. (DOCX 87 kb)

Supplementary Table 6

Species S. imberbis (Vanua Levu) replicate. (XLSX 78 kb)

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Chomicki, G., Renner, S. Obligate plant farming by a specialized ant. Nature Plants 2, 16181 (2016).

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