15 June 2009

Monkey heads in our mangroves: amazing ant plants

I still vividly recall the colourful stories JC shared about how Dr John Yong and Shufen and the NParks team discovered the Monkey head ant plants (Hydnophytum formicarum) at the magnificent mangroves of Pulau Pawai.

So I was most delighted to see a paper about this and other ant plants of Singapore on Nature in Singapore of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research.

These bizarre plants grow on trees and provide cavities within their bulbous stems for not only ants but apparently also all kinds of other tiny animals such as mites, fly larvae and beetles. Some kinds of fungus are also found in association with them.

While the plant provides the ants with a home as well as a source of food, the ants provide the plant will much needed nutrients from their leftover insect prey as well as ant droppings. The ants also protect the plant from enemies that might eat it.

The Monkey head is a flowering plant with tiny flowers and tiny fruits. Because the plant is fiercely guarded by ants, there are no pollinators and the flowers are self-pollinating. The ants, of course, disperse the plants carrying the seeds and leaving them in ant tunnels along the tree bark where they grow into new Monkey heads. Although flowerpecker birds have been seen eating the fruits, stealing them from their protectors and often eating them in flight.

It's so nice to see that Shufen is listed as the person (S. Yang) sharing the record for this special plant at Pulau Pawai in 2006. She is now part of an illustrious group including H. N. Ridley who found most of the other records. (click on image for larger view).
Well, we should keep an eye out for this very special mangrove plant when we do our mangrove mania explorations!

Read the full fascinating article here: Tuberous, epiphytic, rubiaceous myrmecophytes of Singapore. A. F. S. L. Lok and H. T. W. Tan. Pp. 231–236. [PDF, 843 KB]

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