Leucospermum cordifolium, the ants and the fire

December 1, 2017

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Looking at the importance of fire and the ecological Fynbos cycles that benefit from it, Leucospermum cordifolium is reliant on fire to germinate its seed and in turn produce new plants.

Leucospermum cordifolium has a fascinating ecology. The flowers produce sweet nectar that attracts insects and birds. Sugar birds and sun birds feed on the nectar and the insects that they find on the plants. To get to get to the nectar the birds must stick their heads deep into the flower and pollen brushes off onto the back of their heads. Pollination occurs as the birds travel from flower to flower transferring pollen. Baboons also love the nut-like seeds found at the centre of each flower and so the plants are a good source of protein for baboons too.

The leaves of Leucospermum cordifolium have nectar producing glands or swellings at the tip of each tooth on the leaf. These glands secret nectar which in turn feeds the ants that visit and protect the plant from pests.

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Each flower produces only a few hard nut-like seeds that are covered in a sweet whitish coating which ants love. Some Leucospermum seeds release a pheromone that attract the ants. The seeds are harvested by the ants and dragged underground into their nests which become underground seed stores. As a reward for safe guarding the seeds the ants relish the whitish coating and devour it once the seeds have been stored.

This production of seed by the plant and storage of seed by the ants occurs for years between fire cycles. The seeds will not germinate until the next fire. The mature plant of Leucospermum cordifolium dies completely when fire occurs, and its nutrients are returned to the soil. The seeds survive underground thanks to their relationship with the ants. The smoke and the fire promote germination of the seeds. And the entire cycle repeats itself again.

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Text & Photographs: Raquel de Castro Maia

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