Journal of Tropical Ecology

Research Article

Swimming ants and pitcher plants: a unique ant-plant interaction from Borneo

C. M. Clarkea1 p1 and R. L. Kitchinga1 p2

a1 Department of Ecosystem Management, University of New England, Armidale, New South Wales 2351, Australia


The relationship between Camponotus sp. ants and the carnivorous pitcher plant, Nepenthes bicalcarata, from Borneo were investigated. The ants nest in the hollow tendrils of the plant, and feed on large prey items caught by the pitchers. These are hauled from the pitcher fluid by the ants and consumed. When large prey items are absent, the ants feed upon mosquito larvae which inhabit the pitcher fluid. The accumulation of excess prey in pitchers can lead to putrefaction of the contents, and disruption of the pitcher's digestive system. Experiments on the possible benefits of the ants' behaviour to the plant showed that the accumulation of excess prey and the putrefaction of the pitcher contents were significantly reduced in the presence of the ants. The accumulation of ammonia in pitchers was unaffected by the presence of the ants when small prey were added to pitchers, but was reduced significantly in the presence of ants when large prey were added. It is suggested that Camponotus sp. and N. bicalcarata have a mutualistic association, from which the ants obtain food and nesting sites and, in return, prevent damaging accumulation of excess prey in the pitchers.

(Accepted October 16 1994)


p1 Department of Zoology, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland 4811, Australia.

p2 Australian School of Environmental Studies, Griffith University, Nathan, Brisbane, Queensland 4111, Australia