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Ants more than picnic spoilers, SUNY Buffalo State study says

Ever try to hire great help around the house when someone else is offering a better deal? According to a SUNY Buffalo State biologist, plants compete for ants that will disperse their seeds.

Just like carpenters (no pun intended), ants are more available when plants stagger the dates that they release their seeds. The plants and the ants are called mutualist partners because they benefit each other. They are essential to each other's survival because plants need the ants to ensure their group survival.

Robert Warren, assistant professor biology at SUNY Buffalo State College, Itamar Giladi, and Mark A. Bradford published "Competition as a mechanism structuring mutualisms" in the Journal of Ecology on January 13. Some 96 hours of video showed 210 visits by ants at stations baited with seeds. The analysis showed that ants preferred large seeds to small ones.

Science Daily online quoted Warren about the relationship between plants and ants. Plants compete, he noted, for other essentials like sunlight, water, and nutrients, and they also compete for ants.

So plants adapt their seed release to correspond to the availability of ants. Because large seeds are released later in the spring, plants with smaller seeds release them earlier in the spring when ants are searching for seeds. But plants that don't rely on ants don't adapt in this way.

Linda Chalmer Zemel also writes the Buffalo Books column and often writes about evolutionary psychology. She teaches in the Communication Department at SUNY Buffalo State College.

Contact Linda at

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