Bacterial endosymbionts in plant-ants

Fluorescence microscopy of ant gut dissections. The red circles in the top row highlight the presence of bacterial cells spilling out of Cephalotes varians guts. The lower row shows guts from the plant-ant Pseudomyrmex flavicornis. Note the absence of significant numbers of bacteria in this species.

Fluorescence microscopy of ant gut dissections. The red circles in the top row highlight the presence of bacterial cells spilling out of Cephalotes varians guts. The lower row shows guts from the plant-ant Pseudomyrmex flavicornis. Note the absence of significant numbers of bacteria in this species.

Ants are the most numerous animals in many terrestrial ecosystems, comprising over 90% of arthropods in the rainforest canopy. This numerical dominance means that ants cannot all be predatory, as was once thought, but must instead feed on more nutrient poor, plant-based resources. Acacia-ants are exemplars of strictly herbivorous ants, living in acacia trees and feeding exclusively on resources provided by these plants. However, the nutritional content of the nectar provided by acacias is insufficient for colony growth and reproduction, leaving open the question of how these ants obtain the necessary nourishment. Many other animals, including humans, are now known to depend on bacteria living in their guts to help them extract nutrients from their food.