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Word of the Week: Myrmecochory

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Welcome to Word of the Week! Stay tuned for a new word each Friday to amp up your nature vocabulary!

Myrmecochory [myr-me-co-cho-ry] (noun): a method of seed dispersal by ants.

If you have been hiking in the woods before, you likely have noticed little plants sticking to your clothing or to your pet’s fur. Flowering plants use a variety of creative methods to disperse their seeds, including using animals.

Myrmecochorous plants produce seeds with an external appendage called an elaiosome. Elaiosomes are rich in nutrients such as lipids and proteins, which attract ants to the plants. Ants carry these seeds back to the colony, where the elaiosomes are fed to other ants or to larvae, and then discarded into the soil.

This process is a mutualistic interaction – meaning both the plants and the ants benefit. An increased dispersal distance away from the parent plant is likely to increase the new plant’s chances of survival, and when ants disperse seeds underground, the nutrient-rich soils in ant colonies help enhance germination. Additionally, seed predation can be avoided when ants remove the elaiosomes before other predators feed on them.

Myrmecochorous plants found in Toronto include bloodroot and trilliums. If you spot a patch of these flowers while hiking, keep your eyes out – there’s a good chance that an ant colony is close by!