Cooperation between plants and ants has contributed to the evolution of plant diversity
contributed by Marjorie Weber @weber_mg
Agriculture, Animals, Community ecology, Dyslexia, Ecology, Evolution, Evolutionary processes, Experimental, Field, Mutualism, North America, Phylogenies, Plants, Woman
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Weber, Marjorie G., and Anurag A. Agrawal. “Defense mutualisms enhance plant diversification.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111.46 (2014): 16442-16447.
Marjorie Weber is an evolutionary ecologist studying plant-insect interactions at Michigan State University
PB: Why did you become a biologist?
MW: I was fascinated by the life-view that all beings on earth are connected via a common evolutionary thread. How incredible!
PB: What is your favorite part about your job?
MW: Studying the mysteries of the natural world.
PB: What obstacles have you overcome to get where you are?
MW: In school, I never thought I was the “smart kid” – it was difficult to believe that I could become a scientist. However, with the help of inspiring role models, I slowly began to believe in myself. With perseverance, I was able to get a PhD and become a professional scientist. It is a wonderful job!
PB: Do you feel that any dimension of your identity is invisible or under-represented/marginalized in STEM?
MW: As a woman, I have faced marginalization in my journey in STEM. As someone with dyslexia, I struggled with a challenges related to typical learning structures.
Take home message of study
Plant families that have evolved extrafloral nectaries (glands that secrete sugar to feed ant bodyguards) have more species than plant families that lack ant defense. This suggests that cooperation between plants and ants has contributed to the evolution of plant diversity
An ant visits an extrafloral nectary. In return for the sugary nectar provided by the plant, the ant provides protection by warding off enemies. This photo was taken by undergraduate researcher Ellen Woods.
Key Research Points
Main contributions/Key Figure
Plant families that have evolved extrafloral nectaries (glands that secrete sugar to feed ant bodyguards) have more species than plant families that lack ant defense. A circular evolutionary tree of plant families (each tip is a family) is depicted families that have extrafloral nectaries painted Red. Bars at the tips of the tree represent the number of species in that family. The inset graph shows the average number of species / million years (net speciation rate) of families with and without extrafloral nectaries – revealing that plant groups with ant defense have more species over time.
Understanding the natural ways in which plants protect themselves from their enemies can inform sustainable agriculture. This research shows that attracting and rewarding ant bodyguards is a natural form of defense that has increased the success of plants over evolutionary time.