If animals and plants can’t defend themselves, they often form partnerships with bodyguards. Wasps use zombified caterpillars. Corals recruit goby fish. And acacia trees hire ants. The ants defend the trees against hungry mouths by biting and stinging any invading plant-eaters. Some are so ferocious that they can deter elephants. In return, the trees pay their bodyguards by providing shelter in the form of swollen thorns, and food in the form of nectar or nutritious parcels called “food bodies”.
This alliance between ants and acacias is a staple of textbooks, but it’s even more intimate than anyone suspected. Some acacias don’t just supply their ants with any old food. They offer the biological equivalent of a cheque—a reward that only the ants can cash.
Every partnership is vulnerable to thieves. The acacia’s bright, nutritious food bodies could easily be pilfered by any insect quick enough to avoid the patrolling ants. But insects that steal them are in for a poor and possibly dangerous meal.
Domancar Orona-Tamayo from CINVESTAV-Irapuato in Mexico and Natalie Wielsch from the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Germany found that the food bodies of two acacia species are loaded with molecules called protease inhibitors. As their name suggests, these block enzymes called proteases, which animals use to digest the protein in their food.
Pseudomyrmex ferruginea—one of the ants that guards the acacia—has no such problems. Its guts are dominated by a special protease called chymotrypsin-1, which the acacia’s protease inhibitors do not inhibit. When these bodyguards eat the food bodies, they get a nutritious reward. When beetles try to do the same, they get indigestion.
The protease inhibitors aren’t found throughout the acacia, just in the food bodies. They are security measures that protect the tree’s rewards by harming would-be thieves. Only the ants can bypass these defences, and only the right ants at that.
Orona-Tamayo and Wielsch found that Pseudomyrmex gracilis—a species that exploits the acacia’s rewards without ever lifting a mandible to defend it—isn’t quite as well-equipped as the P.ferrugineus. It has some chymotrypsin-1, but also plenty of other proteases that are inactivated by the acacia’s neutralising enzymes. It gets something out of the food bodies, but not as much as the tree’s true partner.
There are other examples in the natural world of alliances where partners lock each other into exclusive contracts. Some do it physically. Many flowers hide their nectar at the bottom of long tubes that only the right pollinators can reach them, whether they’re long-billed hummingbirds or long-tongued flies.
In these cases, it’s clear that the flowers and their pollinators evolved alongside one another. As nectar tubes got longer, so did bills and tongues, until both fit together like locks and keys. Is the same true for the acacia and the ant? It’s possible, but the team suspects that both partners came prepared for exclusivity.
The acacia uses the same protease inhibitors as many other related plants, and many ants and spiders* have chymotrypsin-1 in their guts. The tree eventually concentrated its inhibitors into its food bodies, while its ant partners emphasised chymotrypsin-1 and downplayed other proteases. They were already a good match from the start. They just became closer over time.
*This might be why the world’s only vegetarian spider, Bagheera kiplingithe world’s only vegetarian spider, Bagheera kiplingi, can get away with eating acacia food bodies.
Reference: Orona-Tamayo, Wielsch, Blanco-Labra, Svatos, Farias-Rodriguez & Heil. 2013. Exclusive rewards in mutualisms: ant proteases and plant protease inhibitors create a lock–key system to protect Acacia food bodies from exploitation. Molecular Ecology http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/mec.12320