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Thursday, September 9, 2010

Ants versus elephants

Ants are ferocious protectors of their territory. In sub-Saharan Africa, that territory is often an acacia tree of the species Acacia drepanolobium. These trees provide the ants with not only shelter, but also food in the form of sweet nectar. Not surprisingly, the ants are unwilling to allow giant herbivores, such as elephants, to consume the trees. But do ants really have a chance to defend their trees against these massive predators? According to a new study by Todd Palmer and Jacob Goheen from the Universities of Florida, British Columbia and Wyoming, the answer is a definitive yes.

The researchers noticed that elephants were decimating certain trees, but leaving others entirely alone. The difference seemed to be whether the trees were harboring ants. Further experiments removing ants from trees confirmed that the elephants like Acacia drepanolobium just as much as any other trees, they just don’t like ants. It turns out that elephants don’t like ants crawling up the insides of their trunks. Who knew?

Elephants can do tremendous damage to ecosystems. Unchecked, they can turn entire wooded areas into grasslands. Because the elephants may be avoiding the ant-infested trees by smell, scientists hope they can develop an elephant repellant to control feeding patterns and keep the elephants out of agricultural areas.

You can see Todd Palmer explaining his research in the video here.

Above: A Whistling Thorn (Acacia drepanolobium) with ant-containing galls.
Photo by Nevit Dilmen, Tanzania, 8 August 2010.