Boy’s discovery reveals highly complex plant-insect interaction: When eight-year-old Hugo Deans discovered a handful of BB-sized objects lying near an ant nest beneath a log in his backyard, he thought they were a type of seed. His father, Andrew Deans, professor of entomology at Penn State, however, knew immediately what they were—oak galls, or plant growths triggered by insects. What he didn’t realize right away was that the galls were part of an elaborate relationship among ants, wasps and oak trees, the discovery of which would turn a century of knowledge about plant-insect interactions on its head.
Many plant-insect interactions are well documented. For example, most “cynipid” wasp species have long been known to induce oak trees to produce protective galls—or growths—around their larvae to ensure the safety of their developing offspring. Additionally, certain plants—including bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), a wildflower native to North America—produce edible appendages, called elaiosomes, on their seeds to attract ants, which then disperse the seeds by carrying them back to their nests.
This latter example is referred to as “myrmecochory”—or seed dispersal by ants. “In myrmecochory, ants get a little bit of nutrition when they eat the elaiosomes, and the plants get their seeds dispersed to an enemy-free space,” Deans explains. “The phenomenon was first documented over 100 years ago and is commonly taught to biology students as an example of a plant-insect interaction.”
The team’s new research—initiated by Hugo’s discovery of galls lying near an ant nest—revealed a much more complex type of myrmecochory, one that combined the wasp-oak gall interaction with the edible appendage-ant interaction. “First, we observed that, while these galls normally contain a fleshy pale-pink ‘cap,’ the galls near the ant nest did not have these caps, suggesting that maybe they were eaten by the ants,” says Deans. “Ultimately, this led us to discover that gall wasps are manipulating oaks to produce galls, and then taking another step and manipulating ants to retrieve the galls to their nests, where the wasp larvae may be protected from gall predators or receive other benefits. This multi-layered interaction is mind blowing.”
The team’s findings were published in the journal American Naturalist.