Interview sneak peak: What’s an inquiline?

One of the people I’m interviewing this week thinks a lot about a specific system of inquilines. To prep you for reading about his work, I thought a little background on inquilines was in order.

So what exactly is an inquiline? An inquiline is an animal (including bugs!) that lives inside a structure – like a burrow – that another animal or plant makes. The inquiline lives comensally with the structure-maker. A commensalism is a special kind of ecological relationship where one of the partners benefits and the other partner is neither harmed or benefited in the interaction. So there’s one ‘winner’ and no ‘losers’ in the relationship.

Pitcher plant by afagen on Flickr. A pretty trap!

Pitcher plants have water filled leaves where they lure unsuspecting insects to their doom. The insects can get in easily, but they can’t get out.  What started out as a chase after a pretty pattern or sweet, sweet nectar spell becomes a frantic attempt to escape up the very slippery insides of the pitcher. Eventually the insect drowns and is dissolved by bacteria or plant enzymes. Why would a plant kill bugs? You know how some people shrug off that gnat in your food as a little extra protein? Pitcher plants need the protein in that little gnat (well, the nitrogen in the protein), because they often grow in environments where nitrogen is hard to come by.

So what does this have to do with inquilines? I’ll tell you more about that after the interview, but I’ll give you a hint – not all bugs in the pitcher plant’s pitcher get eaten!