March 2017 Newsletter
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As Spring springs forward,
Ants come a-"March"-ing

Depending on where you live, you might see some plants sprouting from the ground. You might also see some ants running around (Hey! That rhymed!). Ants and plants share a range of mutually beneficial symbiotic relationships.

However, there are few instances of 'ant-ant' or 'plant-plant' mutualisms, and it's generally uncommon to see closely-related species in this type of ecological interaction. Why? Could symbioses serve as analogues for understanding the importance of diverse interactions within our own human communities as well?

This month we take you on a stroll through ant and plant ecology in search of mutualisms between closely-related species. We'll also bring you up to speed on new developments of what's happening in BIOTA, and introduce you to a few of our team members.

In This Issue....

  • BIOTA updates
  • 'Plant-plant' Mutualisms or lack thereof?
  • Vlogs from our BIOTA crew
  • Ants at a picnic
Being a grassroots organization, we're always interested in your suggestions on what and how to write! Send us a reply at 

BIOTA Updates

We all know pollution is bad. Air pollution in particular is an obvious problem in many parts of the world, especially in California. We think that one of the first steps in mitigating pollution is increasing public awareness and understanding of its causes, so we decided to focus our fourth episode on symbioses in California's chaparral habitat and on the ever-famous pollution we've encountered in the greater Los Angeles area.

What is chaparral, you ask? Great question! Now, we're all familiar with the Hollywood sign, but see that stuff around it? That's chaparral!

California is home to one of only five chaparral habitats in the world, adding reason for it being deemed a U.S. state teeming with biodiversity.

Filming isn't the only thing the BIOTA team's been doing this past month. As our team has grown, we've started to reevaluate the relatability of our logo. We want it to say, "Hey, we're a crew of people interested in symbiosis science and you can easily join in the fun too!".
We realized what we thought was a clever and clean way of simultaneously showing a cell superimposed with planet Earth (our current logo) may be a bit too sterile for our goal of inspiring our audience to bring more science fun into their daily lives.

After a lot (really... a lot!) of discussion in our team, and feedback from many helpful third eyes, we've got a working new logo!

What are your thoughts? Does it say, "biology and film" all in one, friendly way?
Stay tuned for the final release next month, complete with animation!

Why aren't there lots of Plant-Plant mutualisms? 

Above: a Saguaro cactus growing up through the branches of its "nurse tree," a Palo Verde. This relationship is an example of facilitation, in which the Saguaro starts out as commensal, and then becomes increasingly parasitic / competitive with the nurse tree as it grows. Photographer: TJsgarden

There are many examples of mutualisms between plants and fungi, bacteria, and animals. Among 'plant-plant' interactions, it's easy to think of examples of competition, commensalism (like epiphytes, smaller plants that grow on trees), or parasitism (like mistletoe). But what about 'plant-plant' mutualists? Are there any reciprocally beneficial interactions among plants?

There is a group of ecological interactions that vegetation ecologists call “facilitation,” in which one plant benefits and the other plant has an unspecified interaction. These could be parasitism (+/-), commensalism (+/0), or mutualism (+/+). In general, it seems like most examples of facilitation (+/?) are either commensal or weakly parasitic. For example, Saguaro cacti depend upon the shade of a “nurse tree” (often a Palo Verde, pictured above) to survive the extremes of the desert for their first decade or so. Then, as the Saguaro grows, its roots crowd out the roots of the nurse tree, and often kill the tree over a few years by preventing it from getting water. Over the course of its development, the cactus goes from commensal to competitor, ending fatally for the nurse tree.

However some types of facilitation may be reciprocally beneficial: that is, mutualistic. This is the case for a recently described relationship between two shrubs from an arid region of Spain, Maytenus senegalensis and Whitania frutescens. When the plants grow together, they each seemed to be somewhat more healthy: one plant seemed to have access to somewhat more water, and the other plant seemed to derive some protection from herbivores.  

The authors of this study state that it's possible that there are other examples of 'plant-plant' mutualisms that haven't been described yet. Although this is an exciting prospect, it seems likely that 'plant-plant' mutualisms will remain rare because mutualisms tend to only evolve in situations when both species can contribute something unique to the relationship.

BIOTA Vlogs 

Meet more of the BIOTA crew via their Vlogs!
You can also meet the rest of the team on our YouTube page!
Biota Vlogs: Sumeet Bhardwaj
Meet Sumeet from our Communications and Marketing crew!
BIOTA Vlogs: Jess Monterrosa
This is Jess from our Research and Science Team!
BIOTA Vlogs: Jesse Czekanski-Moir
And then there's some random guy who helps out with the very newsletter you're reading now...

Everyone wants ants at their picnic! 

Above: A 20-million-year-old amber fossil of an Acropyga ant queen carrying an aphid-like insect she tried to bring with her to start a new "herd" with her new colony. Source:

Well..., not everyone, but ants do have lots of different mutualistic interactions with a variety of different organisms (just like plants!). There are several independent origins of 'ant-plant' mutualisms, in which the ant protects the plants from herbivory and/or plant competitors, and the plant provides the ants with some combination of food and/or shelter. Leaf-cutter ants have an obligate mutualism with fungi that help them all of those leaf clippings into useful food. There are several mutualisms between ants and various types of insects, including a relationship that is at least 20 million years old, between ants and small insects that suck the sap out of roots (see amber fossil, above). Additionally, there is growing evidence that some ants have a relationship with bacteria that is analogous to the plant-bacteria interaction that allows for extraction of biologically useful Nitrogen from the air. 

Also like plants, there are ants that are parasitic on other ants. This mode of life has evolved around 20 times. In general, these social parasites use various means to trick or force an ant colony of another species into taking care of them. Some of these parasitic ants go on raiding parties and steal baby ants from another species; these stolen ants then become their "domesticated" beasts of burden around the colony (this behavior is called "dulosis"). Other parasitic ants don't have workers at all, and just live within another ant colony. 

As best as I can tell, at the time of this writing (March 2017), there is only one instance of unambiguous mutualism reported for ants. There are two species of ants in Africa which always seem to be found in the same nests. One ant is much bigger than the other; the bigger ant seems to be better at constructing the nest, and the smaller ant seems to be more aggressive towards smaller invaders that might steal eggs or otherwise detract from the fitness of the larger ants. The evidence for mutualism isn't air-tight (ideally, the scientists would show that both ants have higher biological fitness in the presence of the other), but it seems promising. 

A very interesting interaction that might be described as facilitation is an ant that is normally parasitic on a fungus-farming species of ant: the parasite eats the fungus garden and sometimes, the eggs and young of the host ant. However when the farming ant is invaded by army ants, the "parasite" kicks into action, and defends the host colony. The parasitic ants are much better than the farmers at warding off army ant raids, so over the course of the colony's lifespan (which could be more than five years), the interaction might balance out to a mutualism. The authors of the study described the "parasitic" ants as "mercenaries," but I think "mafia ants" would be a better term. 

In ants, Emery's rule states that social parasites tend to be closely related to the species they exploit. A more general idea in ecology, called "Darwin's Naturalization Hypothesis," states invasive species will more likely be successful if there aren't any species that are closely related to themselves in their new potential habitat. This is because closely-related species tend to have similar traits and habitat requirements. Based on what we've learned about mutualisms in ants and plants, perhaps one could propose a rule that if two organisms are mutualists, they're likely to be distantly related. In the case of the two possible ant mutualisms, each species is separated from its partner by 75 to more than 100 million years of evolution. 
This newsletter is brought to you by Jesse Czekanski-Moir and Helen Cheng.
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