Nothing in Biology Makes Sense: Tropical trees, getting by with a little help from their mutualistic ants

This week at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! I’m discussing a nifty new study that suggests interacting species can sometimes tolerate stressful environments by helping each other out:

This was the perspective of Peter Kropotkin, a Russian prince and political anarchist who studied the wildlife of Siberia while working as an agent of the Czar’s government. In the harsh conditions of the Siberian winter, Kropotkin reported finding not a bitter struggle over scarce resources, but what he called “Mutual Aid” among species, as well as in the human settlements that managed to eke out a living.

Something like what Kropotkin described is documented in a new paper by Elizabeth Pringle and colleagues. Examining a protection mutualism between ants and the tropical Central American tree Cordia alliodora, Pringle et al. found that drier, more stressful environments supported more investment in the mutualism.

To learn how ants can help a tree deal with drier climates—no, it doesn’t involve little tiny bucket brigades—you’ll have to go read the whole thing.◼