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Am Nat. 2009 May;173(5):675-81. doi: 10.1086/597608.

Conflict over reproduction in an ant-plant symbiosis: why Allomerus octoarticulatus ants sterilize Cordia nodosa trees.

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Society of Fellows and Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA.


The evolutionary stability of mutualism is thought to depend on how well the fitness interests of partners are aligned. Because most ant-myrmecophyte mutualisms are persistent and horizontally transmitted, partners share an interest in growth but not in reproduction. Resources invested in reproduction are unavailable for growth, giving rise to a conflict of interest between partners. I investigated whether this explains why Allomerus octoarticulatus ants sterilize Cordia nodosa trees. Allomerus octoarticulatus nests in the hollow stem domatia of C. nodosa. Workers protect C. nodosa leaves against herbivores but destroy inflorescences. Using C. nodosa trees with Azteca ants, which do not sterilize their hosts, I cut inflorescences off trees to simulate sterilization by A. octoarticulatus. Sterilized C. nodosa grew faster than control trees, providing evidence for a trade-off between growth and reproduction. Allomerus octoarticulatus manipulates this trade-off to its advantage; sterilized trees produce more domatia and can house larger, more fecund colonies.

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