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Mutual benefits: Stressed-out trees boost sugary rewards to ant defenders
Date:11/5/2013

arbon trading between trees and ants under rainy seasons of varying durations.

Their insurance model, in which ants protect trees from rare but life-threatening defoliation events, best fit observations from the 26 sites. Like farmers buying crop insurance, the trees at drier sites appear to be hedging their bets: they pay a modest fee up front to avoid losing all their leaves to pests in the future.

"Water limitation, together with the risk of herbivory, increases the strength of a carbon-based mutualism," the authors conclude.

The insurance model suggests that infrequent but potentially lethal insect attacks may drive the evolution of tree-ant mutualistic strategies under different precipitation regimes. The observed differences between dry and wet sites may therefore reflect genetic adaptations to local conditions, the researchers suggest.

"It's important that the key environmental factor in this system is rainfall, which is likely to change dramatically over the coming years with climate change," said Pringle.

"As the climate changes, the increased frequency of extreme weather events, such as drought, may act together with rare biological events, such as outbreaks of insect pests, to profoundly alter the ecology and evolution of plant-animal interactions."


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