Springtime Symbiosis: Trout Lilies and Superhero Ants


Trout Lilies (Erythronium americanum) pop up from the forest floor, tiny harbingers of warm weather to come. This little lily is a spring ephemeral – a flowering plant that takes advantage of that tiny window of time between the last frozen days of winter and the heyday of spring, when the forest canopy selfishly soaks up all the sun’s rays. During those few weeks, the Trout Lily breaks through a ceiling of dead leaves, and slurps up sun and nutrients to store for the rest of the year in its underground bulb. If that’s not enough, that brief time is also used to flower, produce seeds, and make sure the next generation is safely on its way. No wonder this little plant needs a rest for the remainder of the year!

Given the time limitation, the Trout Lily can’t mess around with seed distribution. It has to be done right and done quickly. Call in the ants.

Many spring ephemerals, like the Trout Lily, produce an incentive for ants to take their seeds, move them a distance away, and plant them in a safe, nutrient-rich location. Each seed has a dollop of yumminess on its outer surface, like icing on a seed-shaped cupcake (officially the “icing” is called an elaiosome, a mixture of fats and protein). Ants carry the seeds back to their nests, feed the yumminess to their larvae, and dispose of the seeds in a waste area which just happens to be a wonderfully fertile location for young seedlings to begin their lives.

Not only do ants spread seeds to new locations and give them a fertile spot to grow, they also protect the seeds from predators like mice. Ruhren and Dudash (1) placed seeds in four scenarios on the forest floor: (a) accessible to both ants and mice, (b & c) accessible to either mice or ants, and (d) inaccessible to mice and ants. The researchers found that ants secured the seeds before the mice, saving the little plants’ lives. In locales where these superhero ants have vanished, spring ephemeral populations drop 70% (2).

Want to learn more about the superhero ants (a.k.a. winnow ants)? Visit School of Ants.

  1. Ruhren, S. and M. R. Dudash. 1996. Consequences of the Timing of seed release of Erythronium americanum (Liliaceae), a deciduous forest myrmecochore. American Journal of Botany 83(5):633-640.
  2. Rodriguez-Cabal, M., K.L. Stuble, B. Guenard, R.R. Dunn, N.J. Sanders. 2012. Disruption of ant-seed dispersal mutualisms by the invasive Asian needle and (Pachycondyla chinensis). Biol. Invasions 14:557-565.