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Ontogenetic trajectories of direct and indirect defenses of myrmecophytic plants colonized either by mutualistic or opportunistic ant species

  • Mitzi A. Fonseca-Romero
  • Juan Fornoni
  • Ek del-Val
  • Karina BoegeEmail author
Plant-microbe-animal interactions – original research


Myrmecophytic plants are expected to produce greater direct defenses when young and switch towards indirect defenses once they reach the size and vigor to produce enough rewards for their ant mutualists. The presence of opportunistic ant species, however, is likely to promote the variation in these ontogenetic trajectories. When plants do not obtain benefits from ants, they cannot rely on this indirect defense. Hence, the expression of direct defenses is expected to remain constant or even increase during the development of plants colonized by opportunistic ants, whereas a reduction in resource allocation to indirect defenses should be observed. To assess if myrmecophytic plants adjust their ontogenetic trajectories in defense as a function of the colonizing ant species, we estimated direct and indirect defenses at four ontogenetic stages of the myrmecophytic plant Vachellia hindsii colonized by either mutualistic or opportunistic ant partners. We report that cyanogenic potential decreased while leaf thickness and the production of sugar in extrafloral nectaries increased along plant development. The magnitude of these ontogenetic changes, however, varied as a function of the identity of the colonizing ants. As expected, when colonized by opportunistic ants, plants produced more direct defenses and reduced the production of rewards. We suggest that facultative changes in the expression of ontogenetic trajectories in direct and indirect defenses could be a mechanism to reduce the fitness costs associated with opportunistic interactions.


Exploitation Ontogenetic trajectories Plant–herbivore interactions Pseudomyrmex Vachellia 



The authors thank Rubén Pérez-Ishiwara, Omar Hernández and Rosario Razo-Belman for logistic support during fieldwork. M.F. was supported by a fellowship from Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (775654). This article is a requirement for the first author MFR to obtain her Master’s degree in Biological Sciences (Ecology) of the Posgrado en Ciencias Biológicas from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Author contribution statement

MFR, JF, EV and KB conceived the ideas and designed methodology; MFR and KB conducted fieldwork, and MFR analyzed the data. MFR and KB led the writing of the manuscript. All authors contributed critically to subsequent drafts and gave final approval for its publication.


This work was funded by Programa de Apoyo a Proyectos de Investigación e Innovación Tecnológica -UNAM grant (PAPIIT-IN211314) to K.B.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

None of the authors have any conflict of interests associated with this work.

Ethical approval

This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by any of the authors.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Instituto de EcologíaUniversidad Nacional Autónoma de MéxicoMexico CityMexico
  2. 2.Posgrado en Ciencias Biológicas, Unidad de Posgrado Edificio A, 1° Piso, Circuito de PosgradosCiudad Universitaria, CoyoacánMexico CityMexico
  3. 3.Instituto de Investigaciones en Ecosistemas y SustentabilidadUniversidad Nacional Autónoma de MéxicoMoreliaMexico
  4. 4.Escuela Nacional de Estudios Superiores Unidad MoreliaUniversidad Nacional Autónoma de MéxicoMoreliaMexico

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