A Farewell to Arms : Dynamics of Interactions between the Unique Semi-myrmecophyte Humboldtia Brunonis (Fabaceae) and its Domatia-inhabitants in the Absence of Universal Protection Mutualism
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Mutualistic interactions between species are balanced on a delicate scale of net benefits to both interacting partners. The dynamics of such interactions could change depending on the context in which these interactions occur. One of the most well-studied models for interspecies mutualisms are myrmecophytic systems, also known as ant-plant systems, where the host plant (myrmecophyte) provides shelter (domatia), solely or along with food resources, for ant partners, while the domatia-resident ants intensively patrol and protect the host plant from herbivory. In some cases, nutrient flux has also been reported from the ant-derived debris in the domatia to the host plant. Such mutualisms are often vulnerable to exploitation by non-mutualist organisms or interlopers such as non-protective ants and other invertebrates that use the plant rewards without any returns. Since provision of domatia and food imposes costs on the host plants, the trajectory of evolution in such cases where protection is partial or absent needs investigation to understand the evolution of myrmecophytism. In this thesis, we investigate the possibility of evolution of myrmecophytism in the absence of universal protection by partner ants, using the unique semi-myrmecophyte (domatia are not expressed in all individuals of the species) Humboldtia brunonis as the study model. H. brunonis is endemic to the tropical wet evergreen forests of the Western Ghats of India. Being locally abundant in its distribution range, this plant species has also been used in characterising forest types in the Western Ghats. H. brunonis provides domatia (modified stem internodes) and food for ants in the form of extrafloral nectar (EFN) on leaves and bracts of floral buds in all individuals. Each domatium has a self-opening slit, which could have led to the domatia being accessed and inhabited by numerous ants and other non-ant invertebrates throughout its distribution range. Of these, only one ant species, Technomyrmex albipes, has been reported to be significantly protective against herbivores, and the protection received by the plant is reported to be restricted only to one site where T. albipes is most abundant. In the light of the above, the possible explanation for continued expression of rewards (domatia as well as EFN) in the absence of universal protection was investigated. Chapter 1: Introduction This chapter starts with a brief history of the concept of mutualism, evolution and maintenance of mutualism, and trophic mutualism amongst organisms in general. This is followed by a description of ant–plant mutualisms, and the various interactions that drive the interaction in such systems, with a more detailed emphasis on trophic mutualism in ant-plants, and stable isotope analysis as a technique that is used to study trophic mutualism in ant-plants. The study system, Humboldtia brunonis is introduced, and all the studies on this system preceding this current thesis are discussed in the light of findings in other ant-plant systems. Lastly, the objectives of the thesis are briefly introduced as separate chapters. Chapter 2: Context dependency of rewards and services in an Indian ant–plant interaction: southern sites favour the mutualism between plants and ants (published in Journal of Tropical Ecology) Earlier studies on the H. brunonis system have shown that there is geographic variation in the occupancy of the domatia, with domatia in the northern part of the H. brunonis range being dominantly occupied by an arboreal earthworm species, while domatia in the south are mostly occupied by ants, especially the sole protective ant T. albipes. Further, it has been reported that herbivory is significantly reduced in the presence of ants in the south. In the present study, conducted at 5 sites spanning the distribution range of H. brunonis, we observed that there is a geographic variation in various ant-related plant traits such as abundance of domatia-bearing individuals, number of nectaries per leaf, size of nectaries, and volume and composition of the EFN, with a clear north–south increasing gradient. However, strong protection mutualism was observed only at one site in the south where herbivory pressure was highest. By comparing our results with earlier findings, we show that in addition to geographic variation, there is also temporal variation in the strength of protection mutualism, and that protection mutualism in this system is context-dependent. These results provide new perspectives on the evolution of myrmecophytism. Chapter 3: Leaf expansion and foliar extrafloral nectar as defence strategies in a paleotropical ant-plant Humboldtia brunonis (Fabaceae) (a section of this chapter is submitted to Biotropica) Despite the absence of universal protection against herbivory, H. brunonis plants constitutively secrete EFN and domatia. We therefore explored other non-chemical defences in this system, and investigated possible explanations for the continued reward production. We observed rapid rate of leaf expansion during the early and most vulnerable phase of leaf phenology, and propose this as a strategy to escape herbivory. The young leaves are also subject to being infested by phloem-feeding Hemiptera, but there was seldom any case of ants tending Hemiptera for honeydew (sugary material excreted by the Hemiptera) on the plant. We analysed the sugar and amino acids compositions of EFN, honeydew and phloem sap, and found that EFN composition was much richer and more attractive (to ants) than honeydew, thereby suggesting that EFN could possibly function to distract ants from tending Hemiptera on the plant, thereby avoiding further damage to the plant. We also observed that EFN composition was much richer than phloem sap, and thereby confirmed that EFN is not mere phloem exudate; rather, our results suggests that EFN could possibly be synthesized actively in the secretory cells of the extrafloral nectary. Anatomical observations of the foliar nectaries further support the synthesis of EFN in the secretory cells of the nectary. Chapter 4: Nutritional benefits from domatia-inhabitants in an ant–plant interaction: interlopers do pay the rent (published in Functional Ecology) In this chapter, we explore how a myrmecophytic system could evolve in the absence of protection benefits from the partner ants. We investigate non-protective benefits, specifically trophic (nutrient) benefits, from the protective and non-protective ants and other invertebrates to the host plant, using stable isotope techniques. We selected three representative inhabitant species for our analysis, viz., the protective ant T. albipes, a non-protective ant Crematogaster dorhni, and the arboreal earthworm Perionyx pullus. We observed that earthworms contributed approximately 9% while protective or non-protective ants contributed approximately 17% of the nitrogen to the plant tissues nearest to the domatium. We also observed from 15N labelling experiments that that nutrients from the domatia are not restricted solely to the domatia-bearing branch but could travel to distant non-domatia bearing branches as well. This study demonstrated for the first time that non-protective ants and non-ant invertebrates that inhabit the domatia, and hitherto referred to as interlopers, could be in a trophic mutualism with the host plant, thereby proposing the possibility of trophic mutualism as a factor for the evolution and maintenance of the domatia trait in addition to or in the absence of protection mutualism. It is also possible that fitness benefits of bearing domatia, acquired via trophic mutualism, could later facilitate the establishment of a specialised ant–plant protection mutualism. Chapter 5: Structure and development of the caulinary domatia of Humboldtia brunonis In this chapter, we investigate the morphology of domatia at different ontogenetic stages in order to understand the mode of development of the domatia. Our observations show that the domatium of H. brunonis is formed spontaneously near the terminal end of a growing branch, next to the young apical shoot. It appears as a young swollen internode which is soft and fleshy with the pith tissue still present. As the domatia grows and expands, the collective effect of both schizogeny as well as lysogeny, act on on the pith region. We also observed acropetal lignification of the pith cells around the hollow chamber. We investigate micro-scale anatomy of the inner wall of the domatia using scanning electron microscopy, and observed that the inner lining of the domatia cavity have canaliculated, lignified sclerenchyma with numerous plasmodesmata (intercellular pits) that could facilitate the flow of occupant-derived nutrients supporting trophic interaction between the plant and its domatia inhabitants. We also observed fungal mycelia-like structures in ant-occupied domatia that suggests the possibility of a fungus as a third party in the ant–plant trophic mutualism, as is observed in some other myrmecophytic systems. This aspect however needs further investigation. Chapter 6: Conclusion In this chapter, the main findings of the preceding chapters are summarised. A general conclusion of the thesis is provided, and future directions leading from the present thesis are also listed. The present thesis has explored the dynamics of interactions between a unique semi-myrmecophyte and its domatia-inhabitants; while the unprotected host plant resorts to an escape strategy to evade foliar herbivory, the ants (and other invertebrates) seem to have bid “a farewell to arms” and yet maintain a mutualism with its host via nutrient exchange. The results of this thesis contribute to furthering our current understanding of the evolution and stability of inter-species mutualisms.