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Pitcher plants 'switch off' traps to capture more ants

Date:
January 13, 2015
Source:
University of Bristol
Summary:
Insect-eating pitcher plants temporarily 'switch off' their traps in order to lure more prey into danger, new research has found. "The plant's key trapping surface is extremely slippery when wet but not when dry. For up to eight hours during dry days, these traps are 'switched off' and do not capture any of their insect visitors," a scientist explained. The researchers conducted experiments in which they artificially kept the trapping surfaces wet all the time. They found that wetted plants no longer captured large 'batches' of ants.
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A worker ant collects sweet nectar from the trap of an insect-eating Nepenthes pitcher plant. By 'switching off' its traps for part of the day, the plant ensures that 'scout' ants survive and are able to lead large numbers of followers to the trap. When the trap gets wet, it suddenly becomes super-slippery and captures all visitors in one sweep.
Credit: Dr Ulrike Bauer

Dr Ulrike Bauer from Bristol's School of Biological Sciences and colleagues studied tropical pitcher plants that use slippery pitfall traps to capture insects.

Dr Bauer said: "The plant's key trapping surface is extremely slippery when wet but not when dry. For up to eight hours during dry days, these traps are 'switched off' and do not capture any of their insect visitors. At first sight, this is puzzling because natural selection should favour traps that catch as many insects as possible."

Surveys of wild plants in Borneo revealed that the traps sporadically captured large 'batches' of ants from the same species. The researchers then conducted experiments in which they artificially kept the trapping surfaces wet all the time. They found that wetted plants no longer captured large 'batches' of ants.

"Ants are social insects," Dr Bauer explained. "Individual 'scout' ants search the surroundings of the nest for profitable food sources. When they find a pitcher trap full of sweet nectar, they go back to the colony and recruit many more ant workers. However, a trap that is super-slippery all the time will capture most of these scout ants and cut off its own prey supply."

The researchers found that ant recruitment was impeded when the traps were continually kept wet.

Dr Bauer said: "By 'switching off' their traps for part of the day, pitcher plants ensure that scout ants can return safely to the colony and recruit nest-mates to the trap. Later, when the pitcher becomes wet, these followers get caught in one sweep. What looks like a disadvantage at first sight, turns out to be a clever strategy to exploit the recruitment behaviour of social insects."


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Materials provided by University of Bristol. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Jonathan A. Moran, Alison J. Moran. Foliar Reflectance and Vector Analysis Reveal Nutrient Stress in Prey‐Deprived Pitcher Plants (Nepenthes rafflesiana). International Journal of Plant Sciences, 1998; 159 (6): 996 DOI: 10.1086/314086

Cite This Page:

University of Bristol. "Pitcher plants 'switch off' traps to capture more ants." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 13 January 2015. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/01/150113204341.htm>.
University of Bristol. (2015, January 13). Pitcher plants 'switch off' traps to capture more ants. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 29, 2017 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/01/150113204341.htm
University of Bristol. "Pitcher plants 'switch off' traps to capture more ants." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/01/150113204341.htm (accessed May 29, 2017).

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