A new study has found that the carnivorous pitcher plant has evolved a nifty trick for catching ants.
It is a significant find as the mechanism this plant uses seems counterproductive to what we would think of as hunting.
The University of Bristol biologist explains that an individual ‘scout’ ant will thoroughly search its surroundings for quality food sources. When they find the pitcher trap full of nectar, the ant goes back to the colony to report and recruit more workers.
But the scout ant will fall into the trap and die, and then it obviously cannot return to the colony to get more helpers, so the plant has evolved a neat little toggle trick that switches off the trap so the scout ant can get out and return with more prey.
Bauer continues, “By switching off their traps for part of the day, pitcher plants ensure that scout ants can return safely to the colony and recruit nest-mates to the trap. Later, when the pitcher becomes wet, these followers get caught in one sweep.”
Bauer goes on to say, “What superficially looks like an arms race between nectar robbers and deadly predators could in fact be a sophisticated case of mutual benefit.” He continues, “As long as the energy gain (eating the nectar) outweigh s the loss of worker ants, the ant colony benefits from the relationship just as much as the plant does.”
He concludes, “What looks like a disadvantage at first sight, turns out to be a clever strategy to exploit the recruitment behavior of social insects.”
Most plant hair are built to repel water — on the pitcher, though, the hairs are built to draw water in, leaving the sides of the plant so slick that even sticky-footed animals like ants and beetles can’t gain the traction they need to escape a fate worse than death — being swallowed alive by a terrifying, meat-eating plant, followed gradually by death.