A coevolutionary tale of the lily and the ant

One, Dogtooth Violet, hints at the shape of its bulb, another, Trout Lily, refers to the similarity between its leaf markings and those of a fish.

In full sun its petals curl to reveal a panoply of reproductive parts. Trout Lily is pollinated by bees. Ants are responsible for the dispersal of its seeds, a phenomenon called myrmecochory. Ants are attracted to the eliosome, a nutrient-rich seed coat. Together, the seed and its eliosome are known as a diaspore. Ants collect and sequester these and the eliosome provides a ready source of nutrient for the growth of their developing embryos. The dismissed seed, having been moved under ground, is now in a favorable spot for germination and out of view of other, hungry, granivores.

I am fascinated by this sort of mutualistic cooperation. Consider that you and I agree, or not, using words to express wants and desires. But what of myrmecochory? How can this sort of relationship occur when the participating parties are unable to communicate? There are surely benefits to individuals lucky to possess the structures (eliosomes) and neural predilection (granivory) which allow them to participate in such a relationship. But where do the predispositions come from and how are they perpetuated?

Nutrients which support the growth and development of plant embryos are stored within seeds as endosperm. Imagine a plant which, by chance mutation, a genetic mistake, produces a thin coat of endosperm on the outside rather than exclusively within. Imagine one or a few ants born, by chance mutation, a genetic mistake, with a neural system predisposed to seek out these novel seeds and to providing them to their developing brood. And so it goes that not all teratogenic miscues are bad or deleterious. Both the lily and the ant benefit from their seemingly cooperative, though unconsciously motivated actions. What really matters is that they both do better than others of their sort, others not similarly endowed by the same novel, genetic, programs. And, more importantly, the genes which encode these behaviors are reproduced more effectively than those which code for other, similar, programs. These move into the future and will continue to do so until the strategies they confer are surpassed by some other, fortuitous, solution to the challenge of getting by.

25 thoughts on “A coevolutionary tale of the lily and the ant

  1. Like a partly colored black and white image – amazing!!
    I am zooming in on using using words like wants and desires: I think this is totally OK, and I consider this just a shortcut used by experts in this field. It is just an issue when taken at face value by outsiders. I have experienced this often when discussing phyiscs with lay people: As a convenient shortcut replacing mathematical relationships you say something like ‘feeling a force’ or ‘wanting to move something’. But then you have to discuss philosophical consequences as a complicated feedback loop (described in sloppy words, admittedly) is considered simple causality.

    • Yes. Excellent point. I hope I have not been guilty of this in the past. Equating wants and desires with genetically-directed-outcomes could give a very wrong impression. I will be careful in the future in fear of perpetuating the Lamarckian myth of motivation.

  2. Your comment intrigued me: ” How can this sort of relationship occur when the participating parties are unable to communicate? ” There are rather a lot of assumptions packed into that statement. Tongue in cheek, there are days when I suspect the level of communication I experience with the lizards on my garden wall exceeds much of that experienced in human-human communication.

    That said, I’ll bet you’ll find this article about ant-seed mutualism interesting. I’ve been doing a good bit of reading about fire ants recently, and just happened to bump into this.

  3. Earlier I wrote on my blog a few words about the useful qualities of social media (a very few). You have just proved the point. Words and explanations many of us have never experienced are brought out to be understood. Nice writing, David…and very nice looks at the flower.
    There is so much about life on Earth that is not understood. Even when scientists such as yourself discover and write about these behaviors, the reasons are still elusive. There are discussions about the level of thought and intelligence held by other organisms besides ourselves. Most consider these organisms lesser creatures, but it is entirely possible that the lesser is us. It is possible that our ability to think as we do may get in the way of our understanding in a more intuitional way.

    • I agree. I can’t find my way in the dark using echolocation. When swimming through murky water, I wouldn’t be able to detect prey by sensing their electromagnetic fields. I can’t see in the ultraviolet. I can’t live in the desert without water. I can’t fly at great altitude or swim in the deep oceans. I can’t build structures with carbon that I’ve removed from the atmosphere. I can’t manufacture my own food using the radiant energy of the sun. The list goes on. So, you see, you are absolutely correct. Many folks make the mistake of focusing on our uniquely-human traits. I believe these pale in the light of all the fascinating stuff that other, non-human, organisms can do. So, it looks as though we’re on the very same page.

      • We’ve had similar exchanges in the past, so I was fairly confident that I was preaching to the choir, so to speak. Fact is that we have evolved just like everything else, only our human conceit tells us that we are superior.

            • ! … I can tell you the answer to that question right now … NO. We can never know what animals know or how they ‘think.’ There are no tools to allow us to see their world as they do, let alone understand how it is they interpret what is is they see, feel, and taste. But … isn’t it cool to wonder?

              • Agreed. Until we perfect Spock’s Vulcan Mind-meld, it’s unlikely we ever will…aside when we hold a milk bone over our dog’s nose. I think what’s on his mind is pretty clear. ๐Ÿ™‚ Aside from the unlikeliness of our becoming Vulcan, it will remain a mystery forever…at least in our lifetimes. Yes, the wondering is why I will be reading the book.

  4. This is wonderful! And such a lovely photograph. I did not recognize the word myrmecochory, but am always fascinated by everything I learn about ants. What you describe seems similar to symbiosis, but maybe symbiosis involves more of a dependency than the kind of reciprocity the ant and the lily share?

    • You are surely correct. This mutualistic relationship is a symbiotic one in which both participants benefit. When individuals live symbiotically without any particular cost or benefit to either side, we call it commensalism. And, when one side benefits and the other is harmed, the symbiosis is a parasitic one. Thank you for responding L/E. Sometimes I get to feeling that there is an inverse relationship between the amount of time I spend thinking and writing about a post and the number of comments and/or likes. Oh well. I have been enjoying what seems like an unending series of your own beautiful posted images.

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