Bees are widely known to spread pollen in order to help plants reproduce, a role which is vital for the earth's ecology -- now a world-first Australian study has found a special plant which uses ants for the same job.
PhD student Nicola Delnevo from Australia's Edith Cowan University (ECU), lead researcher on the study released Wednesday, explained that ants being used in the pollination of plants was extremely rare, largely because they secrete an antimicrobial fluid which kills pollen grain.
"So ants have traditionally been considered to be a menace -- nectar thieves whose aggression keeps other potential pollinating insects at bay," Delnevo said.
Recently the team discovered a group of plants in the Australian State of Western Australia, known as the Smokebush family (Conospermum), which have evolved their pollen grain to withstand the harmful effects from the ant's antimicrobial fluid.
"We found evidence that Conospermum plants have adapted the biochemistry of their pollen grains to cope with the antimicrobial properties of the ants," Delnevo said.
According to Delnevo, this plant is the first in the world known to scientists to have evolved such an ability.
"About 46 examples of ant pollination have been documented around the world, but these have been due to the ants producing less toxic secretions that allow them to pollinate," he said.
"This is the first plant species in the world found to have adapted traits that enables a mutually beneficial relationship with ants."
Researchers suggest the unique ability of putting both bees and ants to work in the pollination process increased the chance of survival for the plant, and plan to continue their examination of exactly how the extraordinary ability evolved.