Convergent evolution of seed dispersal by ants, and phylogeny and biogeography in flowering plants: A global survey

Szabolcs Lengyel, Aaron D. Gove, Andrew M. Latimer, Jonathan D. Majer, Robert R. Dunn

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article

137 Citations (Scopus)


Seed dispersal is a fundamental life history trait in plants. Although the recent surge of interest in seed dispersal by ants (myrmecochory) has added greatly to knowledge on the ecology of seed dispersal and ant-plant mutualisms, myrmecochory also represents a unique opportunity to examine the links between seed dispersal and evolution in flowering plants. Here we review the taxonomic, phylogenetic and biogeographic distribution of myrmecochory in flowering plants. Myrmecochory is mediated by elaiosomes, i.e., lipid-rich seed appendages that attract ants and serve as rewards for dispersal. We surveyed the literature for evidence of elaiosomes in angiosperm plants to estimate the global prevalence of myrmecochory. We then searched the literature for phylogenetic reconstructions to identify myrmecochorous lineages and to estimate the minimum number of independent evolutionary origins of myrmecochory. We found that myrmecochory is present in at least 11 000 species or 4.5% of all species, in 334 genera or 2.5% of all genera and in 77 families or 17% of all families of angiosperm plants. We identified at least 101, but possibly up to 147, independent origins of myrmecochory. We estimated three or more origins in 13 families and found that at least half the genera are myrmecochorous in 10 families. Most myrmecochorous lineages were Australian, South African or northern temperate (Holarctic). A mapping of families containing myrmecochorous genera on a dated angiosperm supertree showed that myrmecochory has evolved in most of the major angiosperm lineages and that it is more frequent in younger families (crown group age <80 million years) than in older ones. We suggest that the relatively low physiological and energetic costs of producing an elaiosome and the consistent selective benefits of myrmecochory (dispersal, protection from seed predators and fire, safe and nutrient-rich microsites) explain the numerous evolutionary and developmental origins of myrmecochory in angiosperm plants, and we propose that elaiosomes thus provide one of the most dramatic examples of convergent evolution in biology.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)43-55
Number of pages13
JournalPerspectives in Plant Ecology, Evolution and Systematics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Feb 20 2010



  • Angiosperm diversification
  • Elaiosome
  • Mutualism
  • Plant diversity
  • Plant fitness
  • Plant-animal interactions

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Plant Science

Cite this