A coevolutionary tale of the lily and the ant

One, Dogtooth Violet, hints at the shape of its bulb, another, Trout Lily, refers to the similarity between its leaf markings and those of a fish.

In full sun its petals curl to reveal a panoply of reproductive parts. Trout Lily is pollinated by bees. Ants are responsible for the dispersal of its seeds, a phenomenon called myrmecochory. Ants are attracted to the eliosome, a nutrient-rich seed coat. Together, the seed and its eliosome are known as a diaspore. Ants collect and sequester these and the eliosome provides a ready source of nutrient for the growth of their developing embryos. The dismissed seed, having been moved under ground, is now in a favorable spot for germination and out of view of other, hungry, granivores.

I am fascinated by this sort of mutualistic cooperation. Consider that you and I agree, or not, using words to express wants and desires. But what of myrmecochory? How can this sort of relationship occur when the participating parties are unable to communicate? There are surely benefits to individuals lucky to possess the structures (eliosomes) and neural predilection (granivory) which allow them to participate in such a relationship. But where do the predispositions come from and how are they perpetuated?

Nutrients which support the growth and development of plant embryos are stored within seeds as endosperm. Imagine a plant which, by chance mutation, a genetic mistake, produces a thin coat of endosperm on the outside rather than exclusively within. Imagine one or a few ants born, by chance mutation, a genetic mistake, with a neural system predisposed to seek out these novel seeds and to providing them to their developing brood. And so it goes that not all teratogenic miscues are bad or deleterious. Both the lily and the ant benefit from their seemingly cooperative, though unconsciously motivated actions. What really matters is that they both do better than others of their sort, others not similarly endowed by the same novel, genetic, programs. And, more importantly, the genes which encode these behaviors are reproduced more effectively than those which code for other, similar, programs. These move into the future and will continue to do so until the strategies they confer are surpassed by some other, fortuitous, solution to the challenge of getting by.

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