Ants at Plant Wounds: A Little-Known Trophic Interaction with Evolutionary Implications for Ant-Plant Interactions

Am Nat. 2017 Sep;190(3):442-450. doi: 10.1086/692735. Epub 2017 Jun 23.


Extrafloral nectaries (EFNs) allow plants to engage in mutualisms with ants, preventing herbivory in exchange for food. EFNs occur scattered throughout the plant phylogeny and likely evolved independent from herbivore-created wounds subsequently visited by ants collecting leaked sap. Records of wound-feeding ants are, however, anecdotal. By surveying 38,000 trees from 40 species, we conducted the first quantitative ecological study of this overlooked behavior. Ant-wound interactions were widespread (0.5% of tree individuals) and occurred on 23 tree species. Interaction networks were opportunistic, closely resembling ant-EFN networks. Fagaceae, a family lacking EFNs, was strongly overrepresented. For Fagaceae, ant occurrence at wounds correlated with species-level leaf damage, potentially indicating that wounds may attract mutualistic ants, which supports the hypothesis of ant-tended wounds as precursors of ant-EFN mutualisms. Given that herbivore wounds are common, wound sap as a steadily available food source might further help to explain the overwhelming abundance of ants in (sub)tropical forest canopies.

Keywords: BEF-China; Fagaceae; ecological networks; plant sap; trophic interactions; trophobioses.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Ants*
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Herbivory*
  • Plant Nectar*
  • Plant Physiological Phenomena
  • Plants
  • Symbiosis


  • Plant Nectar

Associated data

  • Dryad/10.5061/dryad.kt4fn